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‘We choose good guys and bad guys’: beneath the myth of ‘model’ Rwanda | Human rights

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A devastating new book will accuse Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame – long feted by his prominent international supporters as the model of visionary new African leadership – of being a serial human rights abuser, including for his role in a sustained campaign of assassinating his rivals in exile.

Written by Michela Wrong, the author who covered the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when more than 800,000 people – largely ethnic Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus – were killed by Hutu militias over 100 days, Do Not Disturb represents one of the most far-reaching historical revisions of Kagame and his regime.

Meticulously researched, with substantial new material and interviews, Wrong is careful to set competing claims next to each other where there are unresolved questions, including the suspicions – thus far uncorroborated – of Rwandan involvement in the 2001 assassination of Congolese president Laurent Kabila.

Michela Wrong
Michela Wrong, at home in London. Her new book shines a spotlight on the dubious rights record of president Paul Kagame. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

While Kagame has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, not least over the high-profile murder of his former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in South Africa in 2014 by Rwandan agents, Do Not Disturb alleges Kagame’s involvement in multiple rights abuses from his earliest days in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Beginning with his role as a dour rebel intelligence officer behind the grisly executions of suspected infiltrators, Do Not Disturb chronicles Kagame’s rise as well as his part in the overthrow of two Congolese presidents and the looting of that country’s mineral resources, relying on numerous interviews with former members of his inner circle.

With Rwanda heavily reliant on international aid for almost two-thirds of its budget, Wrong’s examination of Kagame and Rwanda’s role in destabilising its neighbours in the Great Lakes raises embarrassing questions for his prominent supporters – who have included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates and Clare Short – and for international aid donors including the UK accused of long turning a blind eye.

The book is being published just months before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is due to be held in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, this summer, an event that will once again put Kagame at the centre of an international stage.

Far from the charismatic, driven and progressive leader he is perceived as by his international supporters, Kagame emerges from Wrong’s account as a murderously authoritarian figure; a cold, petty and vindictive individual. She compares him to Stalin’s notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, always able “to find the crime to fit the man”.

In an interview with the Guardian, Wrong described how her view of Kagame had changed radically over the years since she first encountered his RPF forces as a young reporter covering the genocide, when – like so many others – she embraced the RPF’s narrative.

Wrong has already been accused on social media of becoming a “genocide denier”, the standard accusation levelled at critics of Kagame. She has no doubt that genocide occurred, only that it hid a far more complex picture, including the subsequent murders of Hutus by Tutsi forces after the RPF took power.

“Going from village to village with the French troops you were confronted by mass graves where people had been hurriedly buried, seeing women scrubbing the floors of the church naves trying to get the blood stains out.

plane crash which killed Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana in this May 23, 1994
A Rwanda Patriotic Front rebel at the site of the plane crash that killed Rwanda’s president Juvénal Habyarimana in April 1994. Photograph: Jean Marc Boujou/AP

“Then you’d meet members of the RPF who were reserved and disciplined and spoke excellent English, who didn’t seem to speak in forked tongues like the departing government of Juvénal Habyarimana [the Hutu president who was killed when his plane was shot down, sparking the genocide].

“I was completely won over by them and completely willing to accept that their takeover was a very good thing because it spelled the end of the horror. That’s how I viewed the RPF for many years and that’s how the world saw it.”

Wrong talks of an encounter with a French diplomat who described the later pursuit and murder of Hutus fleeing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by RPF’s forces and remembers thinking: “This is nonsense! It was so at odds with what I believed the RPF stood for. Now I look back, that was a briefing we should have paid more attention to.”

Patrick Karegeya
Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief who was found dead in 2014 in a hotel in South Africa. Photograph: AP

At the centre of Wrong’s revisiting is her detailed depiction of the circumstances of the gruesome strangling of Patrick Karegeya in a South African hotel room in 2014. Kagame’s charming if deeply implicated former intelligence chief was murdered in Johannesburg by, she says, Rwandan agents after he, having fallen out of favour, had fled Rwanda, setting up an opposition organisation in exile. A “do not disturb” sign was hung outside the room by his killer as they left.

It was a murder that Kagame’s ministers publicly celebrated. Defence minister James Kabarebe told journalists at the time: “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash so that it does not stink for them.”

Kagame denied involvement. “Rwanda did not kill this person – and it’s a big ‘no’,” he answered when asked by a western reporter. Yet he could not resist: “But I add that, I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish it.”

Kagame’s message to Rwanda’s domestic audience was different. He delivered it at a prayer breakfast in Kigali: “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” he told a small crowd of dignitaries.

“Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price,” Kagame said. “Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.”

Wrong claims it has not been an isolated incident, with opposition figures and critics – including in the UK – receiving warnings that their lives may be in danger, raising a question over why the UK is so supportive of a regime that Scotland Yard has had to provide protection against.

But even long before Karegeya’s murder, Wrong admits she was harbouring doubts about Kagame.

Members of the Rwanda National Congress opposition party
Members of the Rwanda National Congress hold pictures of slain party founder Patrick Karegeya, and posters of Paul Kagame bearing the words ‘wanted, war criminal’. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty

It was the assassination in Kenya of Seth Sendashonga, a Hutu former interior minister in the government of national unity in Rwanda who had fallen out with the regime in Kigali, that was the first crack in her perception.

She recalls it as the day “when with a near-audible mental ping, I realised I no longer believed most of the key ‘truths’ upon which [Kagame’s RPF] built its account.”

“That was 1998. Early on. There were two attempts on his life and that made it impossible to pretend it was just random crime.

“It’s not what I expected the RPF to be doing. I remember the behind the scenes RPF counter-narrative to journalists and diplomats with friends in the movement was: ‘No! You have to understand, he’d gone abroad and he was mustering these former genocidaires. They were going to attack Rwanda. He’d gone over to the dark side.’”

But as Wrong points out, many, such as Karegeya and Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, the exiled former Rwandan chief of staff (who also survived an attempt on his life in South Africa), were far from former genocidaires camped out in the forests of the neighbouring DRC, but among those once in Kagame’s most trusted inner circle.

“The people that Kagame really fears, the people he is reaching out across the globe to silence, intimidate, harass and kill are more often than not members of his own Tutsi elite.”

A Rwandan soldier
A Rwandan soldier stands by a poster of president Paul Kagame during a campaign rally. Photograph: Karel Prinsloo/AP

After four years researching and writing Do Not Disturb, what shocks Wrong is how, in the light of the public outcry over the attempted and successful assassinations carried out abroad by Russia and Saudi Arabia, criticism of Kagame has been at best tepid.

“It feels like it has been consequence-free. There’s been a very tactful diplomatic cover-up by Rwanda’s allies abroad.

“At the most there have been a very few court cases, with Patrick Karegeya’s inquest being the most prominent, with testimony showing the South Africans wanted to bury the story completely because it was the Rwandan government behind it.

“There have been massive consequences for the Russian targeting of [Sergei] Skripal and [Alexander] Litvenenko abroad yet Rwanda is just given a little scolding. There’s a double standard because Rwanda is seen as the good guys. Our friends. And they’re people we give an awful lot of aid to.”

All of which raises the question: why?

Wrong sees a mixture of vanity and lazy thinking, compounded by the west’s post-colonial habit of seeking to anoint favoured African leaders.

“It’s an old story. We always pick sides. Leaders are embraced and a blind eye turned to the atrocities. There’s a temptation to personalise and simplify, to choose good guys and bad guys.

“The other argument of Rwanda’s international supporters is that it’s a stabilising force, but the destabilising force in the Great Lakes for decades has been Rwanda, including the systematic pillaging of Congo’s minerals.”

Prince William meets Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame
Prince William and Paul Kagame meet at Buckingham Palace in January 2020 after the UK-Africa investment summit. Photograph: Victoria Jones/AFP via Getty

Wrong is highly critical of the role played by the aid and development sector, including that of the UK.

“There’s a development paradigm playing out in Rwanda which goes quite deep and it’s sinister. It’s this idea that the west can deliver development irrespective of what the local government is like and that you can strip the politics out of the development agenda by focusing on education, health, mosquito nets, vaccination rates.

“But the local politics are the only thing that matters. There’s something profoundly uncomfortable about insisting that a government which has a deteriorating human rights record and has committed egregious war crimes is a worthy recipient of aid because it performs well on aid metrics yet is busy killing journalists and rounding up and disappearing critics.”



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Build Back Better: Friendly fire aimed at Joe Biden | USA

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In early October, a group of activists kayaked to the houseboat belonging to US Senator Joe Manchin in Washington to protest his opposition to the Democratic Party’s €3.5-trillion Reconciliation bill, which is a star policy of the Joe Biden administration. This came just days after Senator Kyrsten Sinema was ambushed by protesters during her trip back to Washington.

But neither Manchin nor Sinema are part of the Republican Party’s offense against the bill: they are two moderates in the Democratic Party who are forcing the president to reconsider the reforms. In the meantime, Biden is facing both pressure and disillusionment as his popularity in the polls plummets.

The Democratic Party’s ambitious spending plan, called Build Back Better, involves the largest extension of social-welfare coverage in the United States since the 1970s when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson was in power. The bill includes a tax credit for children and other dependent family members, extends aid to the elderly and disadvantaged people, and in its current form, funds a raft of sweeping measures aimed at fighting climate change and promoting renewable energy. But it is the environmental side of the plan that Biden is now considering changing due to the complete opposition from Senator Manchin, whose state – the conservative West Virginia – relies heavily on coal mining for employment. The plan is estimated to cost $3.5 trillion (around €3 trillion), but it is likely that it will be cut back to less than $2.5 million.

This is because, unlike former president Lyndon B. Johnson, Biden only has a narrow majority in Congress. In 1965, when Johnson signed the Medicare bill – which established a health-insurance program for the elderly – the Democratic Party had an overwhelming majority in Congress and held control of two-thirds of the Senate. But even then it was difficult to convince the moderate sector to approve the bill. Fifty years later, in 2011, when former president Barack Obama put forward his healthcare reforms, he also had a stronger position than Biden in both legislative chambers: 57 democrats and two independents in the Senate.

Senator Manchin’s opposition to the social-welfare plan is based on fears over rising inflation in the US, an increase of public debt and – something more abstract – concern that it will turn the country “into an entitlement society,” as he stated at the beginning of October. The statement came after he published an opinion poll in The Wall Street Journal called “Why I Won’t Support Spending Another $3.5 Trillion.” In the article, he argues: “Establishing an artificial $3.5 trillion spending number and then reverse-engineering the partisan social priorities that should be funded isn’t how you make good policy.”

Since becoming a senator after the 2020 election, Kyrsten Sinema has defended a bipartisan approach to legislating – a position she has also taken with the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, which is still awaiting ratification. “The American people are asking for us to take action. What they don’t want to see is us sit on our hands, waiting until we get every single thing that we want,” she said in a radio interview with NPR in August. “That all-or-nothing approach usually leaves you with nothing,” added Sinema, who is the first Democratic senator in the state of Arizona in 30 years.

Both senators raised record sums of money in the third quarter of the year, thanks to large contributions from the oil and gas, pharmaceutical and financial services sectors, according to filings recorded and published by the Financial Times. Manchin raised $1.6 million (€1.38 million), up from $1.5 million ( €1.29 million) in the second quarter and just $175,000 (€150,000) in the first. Meanwhile, Sinema received €1.1 million (€950,000) in donations in the third quarter, a figure narrowly outstripping the second and far from the $375,000 (€322,000) in the first. This is despite the fact that neither of the politicians face reelection until 2024.

Two Senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want

Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders

In the meantime, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is starting to lose patience and is also pressuring the White House. “Two senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want,” Bernie Sanders, senator for Vermont, wrote in a message on Twitter. “Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation,” he added in a separate tweet. In a similar vein, Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said: “Four percent of Democrats are opposing passing the president’s agenda.”

Democrat veteran Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, has begun to try to solve the conflict and is preparing lawmakers to accept cuts to the reconciliation bill. “I’m very disappointed that we’re not going with the original $3.5 trillion,” she admitted on October 12. “But whatever we do, we will make decisions that will continue to be transformative.”

The greater debate with respect to the spending plan is over the size of public spending and to what extent the state should intervene in the economy. Biden came to the White House with the message that a monumental crisis required a strong and broad government. The Biden administration has been able to pass new legislation on voting rights at a time when Republican-led states are pushing for restrictions, which in practice, hinder access to minority groups and the disadvantaged. But there are more projects in limbo. The reason is that it is not enough to have a simple majority in the Senate; the Democratic Party needs 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber, but only has 50, plus the casting vote of Deputy President Kamala Harris.

Meanwhile, Biden’s popularity has taken a nosedive. He entered the White House on January 20 with a 57% approval rating, according to respected pollster Gallup. But in August, after six months in power, the figure had fallen below 50%, and in September, the last month for which there is available data, it was down to 43%. This is higher than the approval rating of former US president Donald Trump, which came in at 37% after the same period of time, but is nine points lower than the same figure for Obama. The fall is largely due to the drop in support among independent voters: before the election, 61% of them approved of Biden, compared to 37% now.

Economic uncertainty, an uptick of the coronavirus pandemic over summer and stalled reforms are among the reasons Biden’s popularity is waning. Other factors include the administration’s migration policy, which has maintained some of the most restrictive elements of the Trump era, and the upheaval following the US army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. With the anniversary of the November 2020 election fast approaching, Biden is hoping that he will be able to pass his star legislation, despite the internal opposition.



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Too hot to handle: can our bodies withstand global heating?

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Extreme heat can kill or cause long-term health problems – but for many unendurable temperatures are the new normal

The impact of extreme heat on the human body is not unlike what happens when a car overheats. Failure starts in one or two systems, and eventually it takes over the whole engine until the car stops.

That’s according to Mike McGeehin, environmental health epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When the body can no longer cool itself it immediately impacts the circulatory system. The heart, the kidneys, and the body become more and more heated and eventually our cognitive abilities begin to desert us – and that’s when people begin fainting, eventually going into a coma and dying.”

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Polish TV sabotages Tusk press briefing

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Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk clashed with Polish propaganda outlet TVP in Warsaw Tuesday. A TVP reporter asked him why Tusk’s party wanted Poland to leave the EU. “This is beyond imagination … I won’t answer such absurdities,” Tusk, whose Civic Platform party is pro-EU, said, before a prickly exchange ensued. TVP also muted MEPs who said Poland should face EU rule-of-law sanctions in its coverage of a Strasbourg debate.

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