Writing for FP.com, James Traub asks if this is the time that Paul Kagame, an erstwhile friend of the West, should be asked real questions and asked about those incidents in his country’s past, which remain unanswered. Referring heavily to a UN report leaked recently to the press, he wonders if Rwanda and President Kagame should continue to escape real questions because they are regarded close allies to those who are meant to do the questioning?
Anneke Van Woudenberg, an authority on the Great Lakes region with Human Rights Watch, told me that, thanks to allies like the United States and Britain, “any attempt to present the information contained in this report has been blocked, subverted, or really discouraged.” And that, in turn, has emboldened the Rwandans. “The report starkly shows the consequences of a culture of impunity,” she says. “You see the same crimes being committed again and again. And we’re continuing to document those same abuses today. This is the kind of horrific cycle you get when you bury the truth, when you don’t hold perpetrators to account.” For this reason, Van Woudenberg views the report as a document of “immense historical importance.”
It is not simply Rwanda’s suffering that has bought it the protection of powerful states. “They have made themselves indispensable,” says Fabienne Hara, a vice president of the International Crisis Group with long experience in the region. Washington has come to regard Rwanda as a “little military machine” to provide peacekeepers throughout the region (thus the seriousness of Rwanda’s threat to withdraw its troops) and as a friendly “entry point” for intelligence and regional diplomacy — a Central African Ethiopia. What’s more, Kagame has turned Rwanda into an extraordinary success story, with a bustling economy, sound finances, and a highly effective military. And all he has asked in exchange — like Israel — is protection from international judgment as he makes his way in his very dangerous neighborhood.
There is disagreement among experts about how policymakers should wield the study. Hara and Van Woudenberg would like to see Washington and London press Kagame to limit his meddling in eastern Congo. Phil Clark, an Oxford University researcher and regional scholar, fears that the report’s publication will widen fissures within the ruling elite in Kigali and thus imperil Kagame’s hold on power. Whoever succeeds Kagame is likely to be a less-stabilizing figure, he argues.
Perhaps the report should have appeared a year from now, or a year ago. What matters is that the United Nations will place its imprimatur on allegations that have been circulating for years. Rwanda’s friends have allowed the country, quite literally, to get away with murder. That tidy transaction must now come to an end. Rwanda is an important U.S. ally — but allies, too, need to be held to account.