Paul Kagame is proving to be a pliant Western ally. But a shocking new U.N. report shows why the Rwandan president can no longer claim to be a victim -- and it's time to hold him accountable.
In the middle of the explosive U.N. report on human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was leaked to the French press last week, the reader finds a map of that vast country with red arrows branching from east to west. The arrows trace the twisting path taken by tens of thousands of starving Hutu refugees across the immense, trackless jungle as they fled before Rwandan troops and their local surrogates, who kept catching up to them and killing as many as possible. The idea of a relentless campaign of murder carried out by Rwanda's Tutsi government, which came to power in the aftermath of the 1994 Hutu-led genocide, is both sickening and shocking. But the report, whose formal publication Rwanda has succeeded in postponing until Oct. 1, is unequivocal: "The massacres in Mbandaka and Wendji, committed on 13 May 1997 in Équateur Province, over 2,000 kilometres west of Rwanda, were the final stage in the hunt for Hutu refugees that had begun in eastern Zaire, in North and South Kivu, in October 1996." "Hunt" is a terrible word when applied to humans.
Whether or not that seven-month killing spree constitutes genocide will, as the authors note, be a matter for competent courts to decide -- though they present a plausible case that it does. Even if some future tribunal concludes that the dreadful acts amount "only" to crimes against humanity, this meticulous document offers a powerful rebuke both to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has adroitly and cynically used his country's suffering as a shield behind which to advance its regional interests, and to his backers in Washington and London, who have unquestioningly accepted the country's unique victim status.
Of course that assumes that the report is accurate. Israel and its supporters denounced the United Nations' Goldstone report, on the 2009 war in Gaza, as a hatchet job. Rwandan officials have responded with, if anything, greater fury, threatening to withdraw all the country's peacekeeping troops from U.N. missions should the document be published. Rwanda, like Israel, also has advocates whose credibility is not to be lightly dismissed. Journalist Philip Gourevitch has derisively noted that the investigative team "consisted of thirty-three people, only half of whom worked, for half a year, in the provinces where the crimes were committed." Gourevitch also threw an elbow at former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had supported the project. Since Annan's failure to sound the alarm on the Rwandan genocide deeply harmed his reputation, Gourevitch infers, "his interest in blaming others is hardly surprising."
The fact that so exacting a student of genocide -- Gourevitch wrote the book on the Rwandan tragedy -- can offer up such feeble defenses is a sign of the powerful hold Rwanda continues to exercise over the sympathy and moral imagination of its defenders. I spoke to three regional experts who had read the report, and all praise its professionalism, care, and balance. And Annan approved, but in no way initiated, the "mapping exercise," as it is formally called. The study, which covers the period from 1993 to 2003, documents acts of mass murder, torture, gang-rape, plunder, and even cannibalism by the Congolese Army, Angolan and Ugandan forces, local warlords, state officials, and ethnic and tribal groups. In this carnival of killing, the Rwandan Popular Front (RPF) and its local allies constituted the best organized, most mobile, and most persistent force.
The RPF was also hunting a legitimate target -- the genocidaires who had fled across the border, reconstituted themselves as the ex-FAR/Interahamwe, mingled with refugees in the giant, ill-governed camps of eastern Congo, and found fresh recruits among them. But the report finds that each time they routed the genocidaires, the soldiers turned on civilians. In one typical episode, after killing a number of ex-FAR in the vast northeastern province of Orientale, RPF forces kidnapped refugees, many of them women and children, and brought them to a camp, allegedly under the pretext of returning them to Rwanda. The refugees were then brought out in small groups. From the report: "They were bound and their throats were cut or they were killed by hammer blows to the head. Their bodies were then thrown into pits or doused with petrol and burned. The operation was carried out in a methodical manner and lasted at least one month."
What has enraged the Rwandans, of course, is the claim that the victims of genocide became its perpetrators. The report offers no evidence of political control, though the Rwandan army is a famously disciplined, top-down force. But the study does adduce extensive evidence that RPF forces targeted all Hutus, including the Congolese Hutu known as Banyarwanda. The report notes that soldiers erected barriers that allowed them to separate Hutus from other groups, sparing the latter and slaughtering the former. Without in any way diminishing the unique monstrousness of the 1994 genocide, the report essentially puts an end to Rwanda's victim status. The Great Lakes region, comprising Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo, has been engulfed since the 1970s in a politics of genocide, in which groups seek to gain and retain power by destroying their rivals. Kagame's RPF, and perhaps Kagame himself, drank from this poisoned stream.
And this is not, like the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, a matter of strictly historical significance. Since the 1990s, Rwanda has played a dangerous game in Congo, backing brutal warlords and helping raise ragtag armies, siphoning off natural resources, even trying to rearrange borders to seize Congolese farmland. All of Congo's neighbors have nibbled at this vast carcass, but Rwanda gets away with it. In the late 1990s, the United States and Britain blocked efforts, largely by France, to raise the issue of Rwanda's behavior in the Security Council. Carla Del Ponte writes in her memoirsthat in 2003, Annan refused to reappoint her as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda when she outraged Kagame by investigating allegations of Tutsi crimes against Hutu civilians after the genocide (so much for Annan's alleged blame-shifting campaign). Kagame has refused to permit the tribunal to interview Rwandan witnesses.
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.