How Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Exploits U.S. Guilt

Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian scholar and leading expert on Rwanda, wrote last year that Mr. Kagame, for all his “vision and ambition,” was “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” But 20 years after the genocide, Mr. Kagame—tall, gaunt and severe-looking—tours U.S. college campuses, where he receives honorary degrees and is toasted by the great and the good of the Western world.


April 18, 2014 3:35 p.m. ET

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

On an early April evening 20 years ago, an airplane carrying the president of Rwanda was mysteriously shot down, and the small Central African country launched itself into a killing spree that would last 100 days. Rwanda’s genocide was shocking: close-quarter, hand-to-hand butchery, mostly with machetes and other implements. Some 800,000 people were murdered after members of the country’s Tutsi minority were targeted by members of its vast Hutu majority.

As Rwanda has sought to rebuild from the ashes of the genocide, the U.S. has felt a special obligation to the victims. During the early weeks of the slaughter, when foreign intervention had the best chance of halting the bloodshed, President Bill Clinton’s administration carefully avoided designating the crisis a genocide so as to duck involvement. (When President Clinton visited Rwanda in 1998, he said that the U.S. “did not act quickly enough after the killing began.”)

But today’s Rwanda—led by President Paul Kagame, who rose to power as the head of a Tutsi insurgency driving back the Hutu killers in 1994—no longer follows a simple narrative of victims and perpetrators. The longer the U.S. has been guided by that narrative—atoning, in effect, for shirking global leadership during one of the worst mass slaughters of the past century—the more it has become complicit in crimes and misdeeds in Rwanda ever since.

A pattern of U.S. indulgence was established in the earliest days of the post-genocide period, when Mr. Kagame was establishing his authority throughout the country. During those first months, Mr. Kagame’s army, composed almost entirely of minority Tutsi, conducted its own mass slaughters across Rwanda, rounding up unarmed Hutu civilians by the thousands and machine-gunning them. These acts were documented at the time by international human rights workers and U.N. experts on the ground. The Kagame government has bristled at accusations of human rights abuses, saying it acted on behalf of the victims of the genocide. (The Rwandan government did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this article.)

A seasoned U.N. investigator, Robert Gersony, estimated that as many as 35,000 Hutu were killed in this manner between April and September 1994 in the 28% of the country that his team surveyed. “What we found,” an investigator who took part in the survey told me, “was a well-organized, military style operation, with military command and control, and these were military campaign style mass murders.” But the U.N. never released the report. Human Rights Watch reported that the U.S. “concurred in this decision, largely to avoid weakening the new Rwandan government.”

Many historians of Rwanda say that this set a powerful precedent of impunity for the new Kagame regime—and paved the way for larger crimes.

Mr. Kagame moved to consolidate his power, with U.S. and other foreign aid accounting for virtually all of the country’s budget in 1995. (That figure stands today at 40%, according to the World Bank.) He quickly set about eliminating sources of opposition and criticism throughout Rwanda. Under his rule, independent-minded journalists were jailed or chased into exile. In 1997, Appolos Hakizimana, the editor of a magazine that had criticized the Rwandan military, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Rival political leaders (such as Pasteur Bizimungu, the titular but largely powerless president in the late 1990s, and Victoire Ingabire in the last election) were imprisoned; some rival parties have been banned.

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