WASHINGTON, Apr 5 – Haunted by guilt that they failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide, Western powers have long stood by President Paul Kagame, whose then rebel forces brought the killings to a end.
But now, on the 20th anniversary of the massacre, they have begun to distance themselves from their former hero as evidence mounts of new abuses by Kagame’s own government.
There has been no breakdown in ties, but in different ways and at different speeds, Rwanda’s allies in Washington, London, Europe and in the United Nations have begun to adopt a tougher stance.
Allegations of interference in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and the assassination of regime critics have blackened Rwanda’s reputation in spite of a successful recovery since 1994 that has seen it become a key regional leader.
Richard Downie, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said: “The genocide of 1994 triggered an enormous amount of shame by the diplomats and policymakers in power at that time.
“And I think the result of that shame and that genocide guilt put the United States and Western policy in a straitjacket for much of the following 20 years.”
Foreign capitals that have no compunction in upbraiding Rwanda’s unstable neighbors for rights abuses or unconstitutional maneuvers long remained silent over Kagame’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
“France says nothing, following the policy of most other countries and the European Union. Only the United States have gone a bit further,” said French expert Andre Guichaoua, who has served as an adviser to the international court prosecuting the authors of the killings.
– A tipping point –
But international attitudes towards Rwanda and Kagame, the stern former Tutsi rebel who defeated the Hutu extremists behind the genocide, have begun to change.
In January, Kagame refused to condemn the murder of his former intelligence chief turned regime critic Patrick Karegeya, feeding rumors he had ordered the killing.
Guichaoua called it “a tipping point.”
“The United States saw there was a disconnect between the real Rwanda, including a Tutsi elite that backs peace and development, and a power center that orders assassinations and kidnappings.”
Rwanda’s rapid economic recovery after the genocide had led to optimistic talk of it becoming a beacon of development, perhaps even comparable to an Asian hub like Singapore by 2020.
“For a long time, the United States had considered Rwanda to be the key force for stability in the region, now they see it as a factor in its destabilization,” said Guichaoua.
Kigali is often accused of sowing trouble in DRC, where UN experts have gathered convincing evidence that Rwanda supports groups like the M23 rebels.
Rwanda denies this, but the M23 were brought to heel in November by a combined UN and Congolese offensive only after US Secretary of State John Kerry brought pressure on Kagame.
– Strong words from the US –
After Rwandan dissidents were attacked or killed — in Karegeya’s case in a brazen assassination in South Africa — the US State Department issued an unusually strong statement.
“We are troubled by the succession of what appear to be politically motivated murders of prominent Rwandan exiles,” it said.
“President Kagame’s recent statements about quote ‘consequences’ for those who betray Rwanda, are of deep concern to us.”
These words were backed by symbolic sanctions — notably a small reduction in funding for US military training of Rwandan forces.
Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden froze aid in 2012, although Stockholm resumed assistance after issuing a warning. Norway has reduced its donations by two-thirds in recent years.
Only Britain remains an uncritical ally, partly thanks to the influence of former prime minister Tony Blair, who acts as a special consultant to Kagame.
The Rwanda genocide became a key impetus behind Blair’s policy of humanitarian intervention after he came to office in 1997.
“They continue to see Rwanda as a donors’ darling. Tony Blair’s influence still lives large over UK policy,” said Downie.
“I think the UK has a way to go yet.”
On April 7, when Rwanda formally marks the anniversary genocide, London will be represented by Foreign Minister William Hague, Washington only by its UN ambassador Samantha Power.