Not Even the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero Can Get Kagame in Trouble

The international community’s golden child at the 2018 Munich Security Conference. Photo by MSC / Hildenbrand

By Anna Videbaek Smith

Not even the late-night hours of August 27th 2020 could tame the scorching Dubai heat, as 66-year old Paul Rusesabagina boarded a private jet. While slightly jaded from ill health and the passing of time, Rusesabagina remained recognisable as the man who saved more than 1,200 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Accompanied by a pastor friend, the 2005 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and subject of Oscar-nominated film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ thought he was headed to Burundi to speak at churches. Instead, the pastor, cooperating with Rwandan intelligence services, lured Rusesabagina on a one-way flight to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The more than six-hour journey culminated in Rusesabagina’s arrest at a Kigali police station – the alleged torture, binding, and gagging he faced were but the cherry on top. A year later, in September 2021, the Belgian citizen and permanent US resident was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of terrorism.

The kidnapping and trial have received significant media coverage and have been condemned by the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the European Parliament. However, one major player has been eerily quiet; despite a bipartisan letter from 41 members of Congress urging the State Department to pursue Rusesabagina’s release, the Biden Administration has yet to adequately address the issue. The most the US has done is release a statement “[urging] the government of Rwanda to take steps to examine these shortcomings in Mr Rusesabagina’s case”. Will they do more? Probably not; Rwanda, and its president, Paul Kagame, are the golden child of the international community receiving more than $100 million annually in American foreign aid. Hailed as “one of the greatest leaders of our time” by Bill Clinton and “a visionary” by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Kagame even received the Clinton Foundation’s Global Citizen Award. Unsurprisingly, given his friendship with Bill Gates, Kagame is a regular at the Davos World Economic Forum where he victoriously parades around Rwanda’s 8% annual growth rate. The country was even set to host the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting showing its close ties to the United Kingdom. Rwanda’s links to France are even stronger with the former Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo working as the Secretary General of La Francophonie. In short, President Kagame has the West wrapped around his little finger.

This is all despite Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House loudly and continuously sounding the alarm on the country’s egregious human rights violations. Domestically, Kagame adheres to the authoritarian strongman’s playbook as evidenced by the many suspected assassinations of political dissidents on foreign soil. Notable cases include anti-government journalist Jean Bosco Gasasira in Sweden in 2013 and former chief intelligence officer Patrick Karegeya in South Africa in 2014. Lack of press freedom is another key element of Kagame’s tightly run ship; ‘humiliating’ the government was criminalised in 2018 and journalists engaging in independent reporting are regularly subjected to intimidation, criminal charges, or worse.  Finally, there are strong indications of governmental monitoring of personal communications, which the publication of the Pegasus Project has only lent more credence to. Taking it even further, authorities reportedly use informants to infiltrate civil society, reducing social and political discourse to whispers behind closed doors.

Why does the West – and the US in particular – tolerate this? Does it not go against our supposed values of freedom and democracy? Values we have fought so many wars to protect and promote. There is no obvious strategic interest in Rwanda; the country possesses few natural resources and there is no Islamic terrorism. Then why does Kagame possess this perpetual ‘get out of jail free’ card? I believe there are two reasons, the first being the West’s guilt surrounding the 1994 genocide. Over the span of three months, nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in cold blood. The West was unequivocally aware of it; in January, the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda received reliable intelligence that Hutu extremists “had been ordered to register all Tutsis in Kigali” most likely “for their extermination”. This was relayed to UN leadership and Western ambassadors in Kigali, yet very little was done. While there initially were 2,548 UN peacekeepers stationed in the country, the UN Security Council voted to withdraw all but 270 just two weeks into the genocide. At this point, an estimated 100,000 bodies had already piled up.  The mass murders did not end until the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi paramilitary group led by Paul Kagame, seized Kigali on the 15th of July 1994. Since Kagame helped end the genocide, while the West twiddled their thumbs on the side-lines, no external actors occupy the moral high ground, making our politicians reluctant to call the current Rwandan government out on their grotesque human rights violations. This seems to be an open secret in diplomatic circles with a former Rwandan ambassador to the US stating that “the Americans, the British, they become cowed by guilt”.

 A second explanation for the West’s inaction is that Rwanda provides a success story of economic development, which are few and far between. While Kagame’s government is ethically dubious, there is no denying it has improved the living standards of millions; under his rule, child mortality has fallen by more than 70%. This is in large part due to heavily subsidised compulsory health insurance, which has allowed Rwanda to handle COVID-19 exceptionally well. With only 18,000 cases and 260 deaths, the Lowy Institute has ranked their management of the pandemic first in Africa and sixth in the world. Frequently hailed as an “economic miracle”, Rwanda’s investments in agriculture, energy, and infrastructure have reportedly lifted more than one million people out of poverty. According to Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting for the New York Times, these are among the many reasons why diplomats and analysts often “[aren’t] entirely bothered by Kagame’s authoritarian streak”.

Will the Rusesabagina case change anything? This is not just another local politician or journalist, but a permanent American resident and internationally adored hero. If the US is unwilling to condemn Kagame’s government for these actions when they know the entire world is watching, the future of human rights in Rwanda seems bleaker than ever.

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