As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, we cannot keep excusing the crimes of Rwanda’s current government – and the so-called pillars of the international community who have failed to hold them to account.
In 1997-1998, several years after the Rwandan genocide is supposed to have ended, I worked as a United Nations human rights investigator in Rwanda for the prefectures of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri. At the time, around 2 000 people were being killed every month in massacres orchestrated by both the Tutsi-led Rwandan government and its enemy, armed Hutu insurgents based in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire).
On the ground, the reality of the Rwandan genocide was very different from that which is often portrayed in Western media. The ‘Hollywood version’ of good Tutsis massacred by evil Hutus is a grossly distorted one, which ignores comprehensive and credible reports of massacres conducted by Tutsi forces against Hutu civilians.
The story of the Rwandan genocide cannot be reduced to one of ‘good versus evil’. It is far more complicated, and more nuanced, than that. However, Western politicians such as Tony Blair, Bill and Hillary Clinton and former British development secretary Claire Short have consistently glossed over these ‘complications’ to portray a one-sided and largely inaccurate picture of what happened in Rwanda.
One of the worst offenders in this regard is Louise Arbour, currently the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for International Migration. She has previously served as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the president of the International Crisis Group and the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Instead of using these high-profile positions to highlight the full extent of the violence, Arbour has consistently downplayed the role of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his allies.
The shooting down of the plane containing (Hutu) President Juvenal Habyarimana, his army boss Déogratias Nsabiamana and (Hutu) Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira is generally deemed to be the “spark” or the “signal” that started the genocide. It also incited further civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths in Burundi and destabilisation, invasion, occupation, pillaging and massacre in the DRC. Propaganda spread by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is now Rwanda’s ruling party, and swallowed wholesale by a gullible — or complicit — international community, claimed that this was orchestrated by Hutu hardliners in the previous government as part of a pre-planned conspiracy to commit genocide.
However, even the victor’s justice practised at the ICTR found that no such conspiracy could be proved. ICTR investigator Michael Hourigan and his team found strong evidence that it was the RPF who shot down the plane, indicating that they had their own plan to create chaos. This is backed up by the chief ICTR investigator James R Lyons.
RPF witnesses, including members of the inner circle, said that the leadership fully suspected that it would lead to a bloodbath but nonetheless saw this as a necessary step to absolute control of power since the Tutsi dominated RPF was unlikely to win a free election in a country that is almost 90% Hutu.
At the time, Louise Arbour was the ICTR prosecutor.
According to Hourigan, though initially his investigation had the support of Arbour, she subsequently pretended that she had not given her permission. Hourigan was called to The Hague, fired and told to burn his notes. It was only as she left office that Arbour indicted a tiny number of very junior Tutsi RPF officials. When Arbour’s replacement, Carla del Ponte, attempted to prosecute these individuals and maybe go after senior RPF, she was relieved of her post. The Ugandan government, responsible for fostering and supporting the RPF, was never held to account either.
The conflict in the Great Lakes rumbled on.
In 2001, I went back to the region as a political affairs officer dealing with armed groups in UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monuc).
Despite interference from Rwanda and their proxy the Congolese Rally for Democracy, we managed to ensure the participation of Mai Mai resistance fighters in the inter-Congolese dialogue. In 2002, I then became the disarmament team leader in South Kivu. My team returned thousands of foreign combatants with whom no peace agreement had been signed and participated intimately in human rights investigations. During the Bukavu crisis of 2004, we helped rescue thousands of civilians and stop the conflagration from spreading.
By then, Arbour had become the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Information about the atrocities happening in the DRC was hardly difficult to find: there was already an explicit 1997 UN report by Special Rapporteur Roberto Garreton on crimes against humanity committed during and after the invasion of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda and their allies; a damning report on pillaging by a UN Panel of Experts; a mortality report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) published in the Lancet in 1999; and another published in 2004 putting the deaths resulting from Rwandan/Ugandan invasion and occupation of the DRC in the millions.
This should have been the world’s top story and Arbour’s cause célèbre. However, nary a word would one find at the time on the UN Human Rights website about the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Despite abundant evidence that the conflict was principally orchestrated by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his erstwhile mentor Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, there was never any mention by the high commissioner about their involvement.
This impunity allowed them to continue pillaging and killing in the DRC while receiving extremely generous foreign aid that turned negative growth into “economic miracles”. Instead of being indicted, sanctioned or arrested, these men have continued to be feted as “great world leaders”, put on UN panels, given honorary doctorates and invited to world fora, NBA all-star games and English Premier League matches. Their minions occupy high positions in international organizations and their armies, guilty of so many war crimes, make enough in UN and African Union peacekeeping contracts to pay for their entire official defence budgets.
As with her time with the ICTR, it was only in the dying days of her time as High Commissioner that the UN mapping report on atrocities in the Congo finally got a green light to go ahead. Even then, some insiders felt the need to leak the report amid fears that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would suppress or gut it.
Meanwhile, the RPF regime has continued to destabilize the DRC through proxies and direct intervention. As anyone can see from the news, the situation in the DRC remains precarious to this day. While the world is currently fixated on the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Museveni and Kagame have been intimidating and assassinating the opposition abroad for decades. Readers might remember the murder in South Africa of Kagame’s former external intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya and the attempts on Kagame’s former army chief General Kayumba Nyamwasa. Along with other former close associates of Kagame, they exposed many of his crimes against humanity.
Though Kagame gets high marks from Western feminists for all the women in his rubber stamp parliament, he has had his last two female opponents for the presidency – Victoire Ingabire and Diane Rwigara – thrown in jail and their supporters beaten. After serving eight years and one year in prison respectively, both were released into semi-freedom in October 2018 (that is: under surveillance and unable to travel).
A quarter of a century later, it is about time that the role of Kagame and his allies in the Rwandan genocide and the years of violence which followed is properly examined —and that his cheerleaders in the western political establishment are no longer allowed to get away with propagating their simplistic and dangerously misleading narrative of what actually happened.
Timothy B. Reid is a former UN human rights investigator and disarmament team leader who worked in both Rwanda and the DRC.