Wednesday, August 31, 2011

FAHAMU Statement on Rwandan Refugees

PLEASE ACT NOW: Sign-on to Statement Protecting Rwandan Refugees!

On 31 December 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and several states hosting Rwandan refugees are considering invoking the “cessation clause” of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This is a very unusual and dangerous move that could cause revocation of the refugee status of tens of thousands of people who fled ethnic and political persecution in Rwanda, stripping them of basic rights and exposing them to forcible repatriation and possible persecution. Cessation is premature and should be stopped.

But you can do something about it! Send the FAHAMU Refugee Programme an email indicating that you endorse the statement below. We will carry your views to the Executive Committee of UNHCR and representatives of its Member States at their annual meeting in Geneva from 3rd – 5th October.

Here’s the text:

We, the undersigned, oppose invocation of the “cessation clause” of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees with respect to Rwanda. Thousands of persons fled Rwanda and are currently seeking protection abroad. These are not people escaping retribution from the 1994 genocide; they are those who have been fleeing Rwanda since that event because of the instability, ethnic strife, arbitrary judicial procedures, indiscriminate retaliation, political violence, intolerance of dissent, impunity, and lack of accountability that has followed.

Cessation is a drastic measure that would strip refugees of their legal rights and expose them to forcible repatriation and the risk of further persecution. The Cessation Clause should only be invoked with extreme caution when there has been, according to the Guidelines of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 1) a fundamental and profound change in country conditions such that they no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution, 2) the change is demonstrably enduring and not merely transitory, and, 3) the change enables refugees to enjoy the protection of the government.

Rwanda has made much progress since the genocide but it has not done so through reliable democratic and peaceful means. It remains a fragile, volatile, authoritarian regime with little tolerance for dissent, freedom of speech, or independent human rights reporting. Social and political fissures remain unresolved and the Rwandan government maintains an overtly hostile attitude towards its citizens who have fled. Positive changes need time to consolidate and genuine national reconciliation remains untested. Moreover, since 2009, more Rwandans have been fleeing, not just Hutu, but large numbers of genocide survivors who were never refugees before, as well as officials of the Rwandan government and officers from its army. Now is not the time to revoke protection from Rwandan refugees!

Endorse Now! Send your name, job title, and organizational affiliation as you wish it to appear, along with your country of residence, to If you can endorse on behalf of your organization, church, business, union, or other civic group, let us know—that will be even more powerful! (Otherwise we will just list your affiliation “for identification only.”)

Protesting Kagame Only One Part of the Equation

I have been contacted in the past few weeks to support Rwandans living in the Disapora to protest President Paul Kagame's upcoming visit to France. I do support such actions in principle, because I think it is important that Rwandans and others interested in peace and security in the country (and region) engage in such protest. It is important to continue to alert members of the international community of Kagame's human rights excesses and continued repression of various political freedoms.

Of late, I am finding the tone and pitch of the language used by members of the Disapora worrying. In some cases, opinion is centred on 'getting rid of Kagame' without much regard to what a post- RPF Rwanda might look like. Certainly, Kagame will have to face justice for crimes committed before and during his tenure, but this day is not around the corner. If anything, it's a long shot to think that Kagame will face international justice, and consequently not a meaningful strategy for change. By 'change', I think these critics mean opening up the political space. Indeed, this is an important issue, but is not in my opinion the most pressing one at this moment. The conditions on the ground simply do not exist for a serious accounting of history, opposition politics, and political freedoms are not ripe.

Instead, I think activists and advocates should be focusing on calling out the RPF on its relations with the peasantry. The 'peasantry' (some 90% of Rwandans) are left out of the gains brought by the country's impressive economic growth. Finding meaningful ways to narrow this gap seems to me to be the most pressing issue facing Rwanda at the moment.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Reaction to the Reaction to 'Silent Sabotage'

A few weeks ago, I was invited by an editor at Nairobi's The East African newspaper to publish a short opinion piece based on my recently published article in the journal African Affairs, entitled 'Whispering Truth to Power: The Everyday Resistance of Peasant Rwandans to Post-Genocide Reconciliation'. I readily accepted for two reasons. First, I consider The East African the premier newspaper in the region, and was thrilled to have been asked to contribute to a newspaper I respect and consult on a regular basis. Second, as an academic, I can't reasonably turn down any opportunity to share my research findings. It is simply not in my DNA! You can find the original East African post here.

As I've said before, my work in Rwanda is directed at one broad goal, namely, no more violence by any party, ever. Full stop. Of course this is a lofty ideal, and one that is not easily operationalised. So, I have focused my research on understanding everyday life since the genocide to demonstrate that the 'new' Rwanda is largely being built on the backs of peasants who are not, by and large, sharing in the yearly average of eight percent average economic growth. Socio-economic inequality is a pressing issue, and one that spills into the political sphere that the ruling RPF so desperately seeks to control. This is the position that I write from. I know that academic articles are rarely consulted, and less rarely read, so well-placed opinion pieces are part and parcel of my academic work. Indeed, I moved to the US to work at Hampshire College in large part because of its commitment to social justice issues and its support of faculty who engage in activist-inspired research.

I also write opinion pieces to keep peasant perspectives on the radar screen of folks working in the country -- tourists, students, journalists, diplomats, etc. -- because Kigali is so impressive with its clean streets, low crime, internet cafes, high rises and other trappings of Western success. There is a story behind the carefully crafted and calibrated message of the 'new' Rwanda as one where the institutional structures that created the genocide have been undone (they have not), that Rwandans are reconciled (some are, many are not), and that the country is peaceful and secure (nationally secure, yes, locally peaceful not so much).

It is because there is some truth to the arguments I posit in my opinion pieces that I am subject to the often-vitriolic commentary of Rwandan journalists and other writers (including some working as advisors and/or speech writers in the Office of the Rwandan President). It is rare that my actual arguments are engaged, although this reaction from Jean-Paul Kimonyo on Paul Kagame's presidential website is the first sign of actual engagement of my ideas. Usually, the reaction is more insult than dialogue, like this example from Rwanda's The New Times.

I give these two examples to throw out this idea. If my analysis is as far-fetched as my critics and opponents contend, then why do they spend so much time trying to discredit my writing?

I think the answer lies in a legitimacy crisis. There is an alternate story about Rwanda behind the impressive accomplishments that are put on display, largely for a Western audience. Life for non-elite actors, nearly 90% of the population, is tough. It is a life of fear, harassment and grinding poverty while elites posture for proximity to political power. There is a growing disconnect between peasant realities and government rhetoric about those realities. And therein lies the lack of legitimacy to govern that RPF enjoys in some rural areas in Rwanda.

The acts of everyday resistance that my research identifies does not point to riot, revolt or rebellion. The local dynamics are simply not such to allow for such popular organisations. Instead, the minute and subtle actions that some peasants engage in vis-a-vis the demands of local officials to comply with central government policies reveal one of the most vexing insecurities faced by local and central government officials in postgenocide Rwanda. As individuals who exercise their authority through fear, government officials expect a certain measure of deference and compliance to their demands.

In much the same way, those writers charged with challenging my work also seem to expect my compliance to their spurious arguments. Sadly for them, these reactions are having the opposite effect -- the more they react, the more my work is read.