Sixteen years ago, the world looked away as genocide was unleashed on Rwanda’s Tutsi population by their Hutu compatriots — machete-wielding neighbours, a frenzied military, the complicit ruling regime. Upwards of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, millions more fleeing into exile, a convulsion of human tragedy that unfolded within mere weeks.
Even in an African continent that has known untold horrors, rarely has there been such methodical, orgiastic and crazed bloodshed.
The international community finally, much too belatedly, did take notice, if not lifting a finger to intervene. Hard to ignore all those corpses, severed limbs and the formidable avenging forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that swept through the country under the leadership of Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s Tutsi president.
But the righteousness that Kagame brought to his mission and the admirable gains his nation has made — Rwanda now one of Africa’s most impressive success stories, a crucial Western ally and regional power — can no longer blind us to that country’s own, continuing monstrosities.
The pound of flesh Kagame was allowed in a tit-for-tat spasm of violence, justified as an aggressive anti-foe campaign to solidify Rwanda’s fragile security and recovery, turned into a retaliatory wave of savage crimes against culpable and innocent alike.
Rwanda became what it once courageously quelled: A killing machine guilty of vast crimes against humanity.
If the United Nations sticks to its guns — which is unlikely, given that institution’s propensity for turtling — Rwanda will shortly stand accused of wholesale war crimes, possibly including “genocide’’, for its brutal and barbarian violation of international laws: slaughter, rape, plundering, the bayoneting and bludgeoning of civilians, the butchering of refugees, outrages committed over a decade and a half of conflict in neighbouring Congo.
War crimes prosecutor Luc Cote, a Canadian, headed the 34-member UN probe into allegations of massacre by Rwandan forces. The investigation resulted in an unprecedented 600-page report for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that catalogues Rwanda’s unchecked, impunity-free monstrosities, particularly during a seven-year period when it twice invaded the Congo, first time installing and second time seeking to oust Laurent Kabila as president, always under the rationalizing cover of routing Hutu militias that had designs on taking back Kigali via counter-revolution.
A draft copy of the report — the first time the UN has made such forthright allegations against Rwanda, despite mounds of on-the-ground evidence — was obtained and publicized 10 days ago by Le Monde. Rwanda wasted no time heatedly rejecting the charges, lambasting the research as grievously flawed. Kagame’s spokesperson dismissed the report as “an amateurish NGO job . . . outrageous.’’
At his swearing-in ceremony last weekend, Kagame — incumbent victor by a suspiciously overwhelming margin in recent presidential elections — attacked critics of both his increasingly thuggish regime and his nation’s regional bullying, Rwanda most responsible for a ruinous African conflict, fought on Congo territory, that drew in nine countries and more than 20 rebel groups.
“It is difficult for us to comprehend those who want to give us lessons on inclusion, tolerance and human rights,’’ Kagame told the audience. “We reject all their accusations. Self-proclaimed critics of Rwanda may say what they want, but they will neither dictate the direction we take as a nation, nor will they make a dent in our quest for self-determination.’’
National saviours who go on to oppress and misrule are wretchedly common in Africa. Kagame has been for more than a decade the darling of the West, roundly extolled for rebuilding institutions from scratch and turning his tiny land-locked nation into an economic engine that’s attracted heavy financial investment. Yet so was Robert Mugabe championed in the West before the scales dropped from our eyes, too late to save Zimbabwe’s social and economic collapse.
With Rwanda, global powers have always been behind the curve, which is why western officials — Canada’s Governor General among them — have been tripping over themselves in the past couple of years to apologize for failing to avert or halt the genocide in 1994. Since then, the humanitarian crimes Rwanda has committed have been similarly kept off the international radar — shrugged off — with Kagame essentially given carte blanche to flex and meddle as he sees fit.
This tacit hands-off agreement has ignored Rwanda’s rapacious hunger for Congo’s mineral riches, its army demonstrably involved in the seizure of mines and the crushing of local authorities. Those same troops, along with fighter groups allegedly sponsored by Kigali, committed unspeakable atrocities against ethnic Hutus between 1993 and 2003, whether they were paramilitaries (Interahamwe), indigenous Mai-Mai rebels or refugee women and children clustered in camps.
While humanitarian agencies, aid groups and journalists have reported on these crimes for years, the accusations now have the imprimatur of the UN. The report describes “the systematic, methodical and premeditated nature of the attacks on the Hutus (which) took place in all areas where the refugees had been tracked down.
“The extent of the crimes and the large number of victims, probably in the several tens of thousands, are demonstrated by the numerous incidents detailed in the report. The extensive use of non-firearms, particularly hammers, and the systematic massacres of survivors after camps were taken prove that the number of deaths cannot be put down to the margins of war. Among the victims were mostly children, women, old and ill people.’’
At least, that’s what the draft report said. How much of that will remain intact by the time the findings are formally released next month remains to be seen.
It is deeply troubling, discomforting at UN headquarters, for “genocide’’ to be linked with Rwanda anew, given that country’s appalling experience in 1994. Accusations of such massive war crimes would drain Rwanda of the moral authority it derived from defeating the Hutu extremists.
A buckling UN, sources say, might remove the term “genocide’’ from the report before it’s published. Already, Kagame has threatened to pull Rwanda’s peacekeeping troops from Darfur in retaliation if the report is released as now written.
This is not merely an exercise in semantics. Genocide, stated so baldly, is tantamount to a formal indictment, with the potential spectacle of Kagame brought to trial in The Hague for war crimes.
Cote, the war crimes prosecutor, stated it frankly: “All this (evidence) put together, submitted to a court of law, may constitute elements from which you can infer the intent to destroy a group as such, which is genocide.’’
The UN can speak truth to power or it can cave.
Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.