Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The UN Report That Shook A Thousand Hills

Rwanda is riled up right now, and with good reason. Last month, Le Monde, the leading French newspaper, leaked a draft of a United Nations report that allegedly accused the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), President Kagame’s Tutsi rebel army that ended the 1994 genocide of itself committing genocide in 1996. At the time, the RPF was chasing génocidaires into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), because they were regrouping in UNHCR camps and launching attacks from across the border. Since the UN was doing nothing to prevent this from happening, the RPF (now the Rwandan army) chased the génocidaires in the forests of the DRC.

According to the report, RPF soldiers themselves committed genocide when on these campaigns. While I have not read the report myself (it is slated to be officially released on October 1, 2010), friends who have seen the report have said that the evidence is incontrovertible: Hutu women and children were specifically targeted, and their bodies were buried in mass graves. I have not seen a precise total of the number killed (the report allegedly identifies sites with hundreds of bodies), but it certainly does not rival the 800,000 to 1 million estimated dead during the 1994 genocide. This, of course, does not make it less tragic, but I think it’s important to have a sense of the numbers, especially when some of Rwanda's critics will use the report to support their belief that there was a "double-genocide"--that is, genocide conducted on both sides.

President Kagame has called the report “ridiculous” and is furious for two reasons—that the United Nations undertook this exercise (which was to map human rights atrocities in the area from 1993 to 2003) without his knowledge, and that the report language calls Rwandan actions “genocide.” The Rwandan government has repeatedly threatened to kick the UN out of the country because they did nothing to end the genocide, they fed and gave health care to génocidaires who had fled to Congo, and they currently do little in Rwanda that the Rwandan government would miss. When I was working for UNHCR there, I was often told by fellow staff that our days were numbered, and that the Rwandan government would take over sole administration of the camps. Naturally, then, when I heard about this UN report, I immediately thought the UN would be summarily asked to leave, as the French government was in 2006.

This hasn’t happened yet, but the Rwandan government hit the UN where it hurts—it allegedly threatened to pull its 3,300 peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and 300 peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Rwanda had volunteered to send its peacekeepers to Sudan to demonstrate activism in ending genocide (and probably also to demonstrate what others should have done for their country). The United Nations has a difficult time recruiting peacekeepers, and an even more difficult time recruiting peacekeepers who are trained and qualified. The Rwandese are competent and disciplined.

It is no wonder, then, that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon himself went to Rwanda to pay a personal visit to Paul Kagame—to congratulate him on his landslide re-election, and beg him to reconsider the possibility of pulling out of Sudan. The UN also decided to postpone the release of the report, presumably to re-examine the language used, and is allowing the countries implicated in the report to make comments and statements that will be released alongside the report text.

The impact of this report cannot be overstated. The entire narrative of Rwanda over the past decade and a half has been defined by its activism against genocide and the development miracle that has been made possible through the “new” Rwanda’s moral high ground and social/economic/environmental policies that donors love. In many ways, even if the term “genocide” is replaced by something slightly softer, such as “acts of genocide,” or “mass retributive killings,” or “ethnic pogrom,” the damage has already been done. No longer will donors be able to tout Rwanda without reservation as a development miracle. Now, all such statements will have to be qualified; Rwanda will no longer be the West’s golden child. It’s too early to tell whether this will have any real impact on development aid, but I suspect it will not. The international community gives money to countries with similar (or worse) human rights violations.

What could happen is a fueling of the Rwandan government’s critics (from exiled detractors to the French government). [As a side note, is it any real surprise that this story was initially made public by a French newspaper?] The Rwandan government has felt embattled since 1994, and felt that way during its days as a scorned rebel army. In a way, this latest development will contribute to their narrative of needing to be even more self-reliant and impervious to external criticism.