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World

Rwanda faces allegations of war crimes and intimidation

As Rwanda studies a leaked UN draft report accusing Kigali of mass-scale war crimes and even genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Deutsche Welle considers the implications.

A field of simple crosses marking graves

The past is not forgotten in Rwanda

The report by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) reopens a brutal chapter in central African history. It goes back to the months and years after the current Rwandan President Paul Kagame led Tutsi troops to end the Hutu genocide against his people.

As he took control of the capital in 1994, more than a million Hutus fled across the border to Zaire, since renamed Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to seek refuge in the massive camps set up as part of an international aid effort. Among the refugees were the surviving perpetrators, the genocidaires, who militarized and politicized the camps, using them as bases from which to launch fresh attacks on the newly proclaimed Rwandan president.

Unable as the international community was to find a solution to the problem, the Rwandan army crossed into Zaire to break up the camps. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus were forced back to Rwanda, while others moved further away from the border. Tens of thousands of these refugees, which included genocide perpetrators and innocent women and children, are subsequently thought to have died from starvation, illness and violence.

A small child refugee on an open road with other people in the background

Child refugee crossing between Rwanda and what was then Zaire

And that is where the draft UN report comes in. It talks about how Rwandan forces rounded up hundreds of people, including the old and ill, and slaughtered them.

"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 draft says. "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."

It talks further of the "systematic and widespread attacks" which have a number of damning elements about them and "if proved before a competent court, could be described as crimes of genocide."

But Robert Gribben, American ambassador in Rwanda during the post-genocide period, told Deutsche Welle that credible proof won't be easy to come by.

"It was very murky at the time and it is very murky still," he said. "It will be difficult to find first-hand sources to legitimate what happened. There are plenty of third- and fourth-hand sources who have an opinion, but that would not be an acceptable criterion."

"A matter of survival"

The Rwandan government has rejected the paper as "malicious, offensive and ridiculous" and insisted that Rwanda's intervention in the DRC was a matter of survival and a result of "the irresponsible and insensitive management of the refugee camps by the UN and the international community subsequent to the genocide."

By means of demonstrating its outrage at any suggestion to the contrary, Kigali threatened to pull its 3,000 plus peacekeeping troops out of Darfur if the draft report were endorsed for publication.

Refugee camp in Darfur

Refugee camp in Darfur

"The UN can't have it both ways," Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told reporters. "You can't have a force serving as peacekeepers and it is the same force you are accusing of genocide."

Since the warning was issued, the UN has said it will not go ahead and publish the report in September as planned, but will give "concerned states" a further month to comment on the draft and will publish any comments alongside the report itself if said states so wish.

Legal semantics

The concession will undoubtedly be seen by some as the UN caving in to pressure from a country with which the word 'genocide' sits extremely ill. Over the past decade President Paul Kagame, who was reelected in a disputed landslide victory last month, has implemented 'genocide ideology' laws which make 'revisionism, negationism and trivialization of genocide' punishable offenses.

But in a second report to thrust Rwanda into the critical glare of the international media this week, Amnesty International has slammed the laws and accused Kigali of silencing its opponents and violating human rights.

The Amnesty paper, entitled "The Chilling Effect of Rwanda's Laws on 'genocide ideology' and 'secretarianism'," says the legislation is ill-defined and has "created a legal framework which is misused to criminalize criticism of the government and legitimate dissent."

Rwandan President, Paul Kagame

Rwandan President, Paul Kagame

It goes on to say that the overall effect of the regulations, officially introduced in a bid to encourage unity in a country that had suffered immeasurably from a lack thereof, was to deter people from using their freedom of speech.

"In the run-up to the 2010 elections, legitimate political dissent was conflated with 'genocide ideology', compromising the freedom of expression and association of opposition politicians, human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government," the human rights organization said.

Responding to the document, Foreign Minister Mushikiwabo accused Amnesty International of sensationalism and dishonesty. She said the group had approached the Rwandan government suggesting collaboration on the possible review of the genocide laws and had been welcomed with open arms, but had then violated the goodwill for financial gain.

"I am convinced that this is just another fundraising scheme for Amnesty International because it doesn't make sense that one would be collaborating and then, half way, decide to publish a report with sensational titles," she said at a press conference.

International star

Whether the lady doth protest too much is almost irrelevant at this stage, because Rwanda's shining star of African achievement status has already been tarnished.

Steven McDonald of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told Deutsche Welle that the glitter was bound to start wearing off sooner or later.

A woman with skulls in the background

Ruanda's past is not over yet

"Rwanda represents the famous boiling pot with the lid on too tight," he said. "On the surface it is progressive and does things we like in the West, like look after its environmental issues and its mountain gorillas. But it is hiding some evil things that have not yet been addressed."

He says countries like the US will have to reassess Rwanda's image as a "darling of African policy" which evinced little more than meek "concern" when journalists were arrested and opposition parties barred in the runup to the presidential poll in August.

"There can't be any more of the diplomatic niceties," McDonald stressed. "It's time to go further than that."

But not immediately. At least not until October.

Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Robert Mudge

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