By John Allen
As Rwanda applies this week to join the Commonwealth, the international grouping dominated by ex-British colonies, both its membership application and a number of recent books on Central Africa are focusing new attention on the current government’s human rights record.
In a debate which somewhat echoes those over justice and human rights in Israel and Palestine, activists and regional experts are arguing over whether President Paul Kagame and his government are to be seen primarily as representing victims of genocide or a government which has become responsible for itself perpetrating human rights abuses.
Among recent interventions which have given rise to most controversy is a report by the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which said this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting should put Rwanda’s application on hold.
“Rwanda does not satisfy the test of Commonwealth values,” says the CHRI. “There are considerable doubts about the commitment of the current regime to human rights and democracy. It has not hesitated to use violence at home or abroad when it has suited it.”
Replying to the report, a senior Rwandan foreign ministry official accused the CHRI of “being in cahoots with people or groups that view Rwanda negatively.”
In a more vigorous response, Rwandan journalist Shyaka Kanuma wrote in Kigali’s Focus Mediathat the report’s author, Kenyan-born Professor Yashpal Ghai, “serves up… fare that you may crib off any of the numerous websites run by deniers of the ’94 Genocide, revisionists of Rwandan history, conspiracy theorists and numerous groups whose extremist sectarian views the professor parrots with no inhibition…
“Reading these and numerous other charges,” Kanuma said, “one half expects Yashpal Ghai to also blame Rwanda for cancer, the bubonic plague, HIV/Aids, famine, desertification and other terrible afflictions on humankind in this region.”
In the United States, a reviewer in the Washington Post last Sunday describeda memoir by Joseph Sebarenzi, a former speaker of the Rwandan parliament, as “a thoughtful critique of Kagame’s regime.”
Stephen Kinzer said in his review of “God Sleeps in Rwanda – A Journey of Transformation”:
“Many development specialists consider Rwanda the most promising poor country on earth. Some others see it quite differently: as a repressive place where one man rules, dissidents are silenced by whatever means necessary, and the regime supports itself by looting the neighboring Congo.”
These differences of opinion made Rwanda “both important and fascinating,” Kinzer added, and Sebarenzi’s story was “a provocative warning to the many outsiders who are ready to canonize Kagame.”
Three months ago, three new books on Central Africa prompted a heavyweight attack on Kagame’s record by Howard W. French, a former New York Times correspondent whose questioning of what he regards as the over-simplification of many analyses of Rwanda’s genocide goes back a decade.
In a 4,000-word review in The New York Review of Books entitled “Kagame’s Hidden War in the Congo”, French noted that the three recent books* he was assessing all portrayed Rwanda and its allies in Central Africa “not as heroes but rather as opportunists who use moral arguments to advance economic interests. And their supporters in the United States and Western Europe emerge as alternately complicit, gullible, or simply confused.”
The 1994 genocide “was not the monopoly of the Hutus, as is widely believed,” French continued. And the three books “characterize Kagame’s regime as more closely resembling a minority ethnic autocracy.” He concluded at the end of his review: “Without addressing the problems of exclusion and participation, whether in a Rwanda ruled by a small Tutsi minority or in heavily armed eastern Congo, where contending ethnic groups want to get hold of the region’s spoils, it will be impossible to end this catastrophe.”
In a letter in the current (December 3) edition of the New York Review, Noam Schimmel of the London School of Economics, in turn hits back:
“Howard French’s characterization of Rwanda’s government as consisting of ‘a small Tutsi minority’ is incongruent with the facts,” he writes. “Hutus serve at the highest levels of government, in every branch of government, and in every level of government from local and provincial leaders to national authorities and ambassadors…
“It has become popular among some in academia to delegitimize Rwanda’s current government. There are legitimate reasons for criticizing it. But such criticisms need to be grounded in fact and sensitive to the context of Rwanda’s post-genocide situation.” Since the government now headed by Kagame took over, no “acts of government-sanctioned mass violence have taken place… This is a stunning achievement, and one that is too often overlooked.”
To which French replies in the same edition that the books he reviewed “relate a history that is much more complex than the one offered by Mr. Schimmel… They offer none of the moral clarity of the Holocaust analogies that remain popular in accounts of the Rwandan genocide, but rather show a region of multiple, interlocking genocides in which Hutus and Tutsis have repeatedly taken turns as perpetrator and victim.”