Human Rights Watch called for Rwanda President Paul Kagame to allow open political space and permit opposition voices as he began his second term in office on Monday.
Kagame thanked the crowd gathered at Kigali’s Amahoro stadium for his swearing-in. He promised to continue his programs of education and development, which are widely credited for rebuilding Rwanda in the 16 years since the genocide.
The former rebel leader also used the forum, though, to strike back at critics who accuse him of repressing opposition in the small central-African nation.
President Kagame is accused by many international organizations, including New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International, of using the government to intimidate opposition and independent media.
In the months leading up to the election, two opposition newspapers were shut down for allegedly publishing articles that promoted public discord and genocide ideologies. Opposition figure Victoire Ingabire was jailed under similar charges after suggesting that Hutus had also been victims of the genocide.
Mr. Kagame said international criticism is designed to deliberately misrepresent the situation in Rwanda. He said poverty, not democracy, is Rwanda’s greatest challenge. He accused his critics of holding hypocritical and patronizing attitudes toward Africa.
Rwanda researcher for Human Rights Watch Leslie Haskell said Mr. Kagame’s speech was “not surprising,” but that the president left many questions concerning his commitment to democracy unanswered.
“The United States, the United Kingdom, France and also the European Union congratulated Kagame on winning the election, but also expressed concern about the intimidation and the violence in the run-up to elections,” said Haskell. “So I think it will be interesting to see how things evolve, whether we are going to see things return to a calmer situation without so much fear, whether we see any opening up of political space. The big question that everyone has is whether he will actually step down in 2017. I do not think we have any idea of that at this point.”
Haskell defends the work of Human Rights Watch and calls for Rwanda’s international donors to put pressure on the government to open up political space.
“The challenge will be and should be on whether he does move towards political participation for all citizens. I think the governments that give Rwanda aid, and particularly those that spoke out in the aftermath of the election, we will wait to see whether they keep that pressure on the government to open up space or whether these were just empty statements.”
Rwanda has come under intense criticism during the past two weeks, after a leaked U.N. report implicated the country’s military in crimes against humanity and possible acts of genocide committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the decade following the Rwandan genocide.
The report says the Tutsi-led Rwandan army targeted Hutu civilians while pursuing the remnants of the Hutu forces responsible for the 1994 killings. Rwanda sharply criticized the report, accusing the international community of hypocrisy through its failure to stop the Rwandan genocide.
The country has threatened to withdraw from the joint U.N.-African Union mission in Darfur, if the report is published. More than 3,000 Rwandan soldiers make up the bulk of the peacekeeping force in the troubled region.
Leslie Haskell of Human Rights Watch said such threats demonstrated President Kagame’s lack of sincerity regarding African unity and international obligations. She urged the United Nations not to “water down” the report in light of Rwanda’s threats.