What Human Rights Watch does on Rwanda is not human rights advocacy
by Richard Johnson
What Human Rights Watch (HRW) does on Rwanda is not human rights advocacy. It is political advocacy which has become profoundly unscrupulous in both its means and its ends. HRW’s Board of Directors should hold Executive Director Kenneth Roth and the HRW personnel who cover Rwandan issues accountable for this travesty, which has dangerous implications for Western policy toward Rwanda and for the overall credibility of Western human rights advocacy.
Donors to HRW should think seriously about what causes their money might serve. Western governments should be careful about following HRW advice, and courageous enough to challenge them publicly when need be.
HRW’s discourse on Rwanda over the past twenty years has been viscerally hostile to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which defeated the genocidal Hutu Power regime in 1994, and systematically biased in favor of letting unrepentant Hutu Power political forces back into Rwandan political life.
I’m a retired American diplomat. My professional experience includes the genocide in Bosnia, and my personal experience includes living in Rwanda in 2008-2010 as the spouse of another U.S. diplomat. My purpose here is not to defend the Rwandan government, which is accountable first and foremost to its own people as well as to a variety of outside institutions. My purpose is to expose and perhaps alter the conduct of HRW. With substantial funding and a mission statement whose nobility matches that of any established religion, HRW has enormous influence on Western media and foreign policy makers, particularly with regard to countries like Rwanda which are outside the core areas of Western interest and familiarity. But HRW’s decision-making process is not transparent, the aura of sanctity around its professed mission deters public scrutiny of its policies and practices, and the degree of accountability of HRW to anyone is quite unclear. This situation of unchecked power is one where things can go seriously wrong. With regard to Rwanda, they have.
HRW’s discourse on Rwanda is a threat to that country and to peace and stability in Central Africa. It discourages Western governments from doing what they should to support Rwanda’s recovery from the 1994 genocide. It perpetuates impunity for important genocide perpetrators. It pains many Rwandans and particularly the genocide survivors. It crowds out the potential for a more constructive dialogue between the West and Rwanda, and raises the risks of cynicism and a bunker mentality in Kigali. Above all, it encourages the leaders of the still extant “Hutu Power” movement — most visible as a small stratum of upper class extremists among the Rwandan diaspora who are unrepentant about and often implicated in the 1994 genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi — to keep blowing on the embers of that genocide in the hope of restoring Hutu Power governance in Rwanda.
The survival of the Hutu Power movement since 1994 seems strange but is not in fact surprising.
Germany’s good faith reckoning with the Holocaust is an exceptional case, and came after complete defeat by the Allies, rapid symbolic justice at the Nuremburg trials, significant “denazification” programs, the quasi-universal condemnation of Nazi ideology and Holocaust denial, the banning of Nazi or successor party activities and propaganda, the Marshall Plan, and decades of German soul-searching with regard to criminal, political, and moral responsibility.(1)
In contrast, while the Rwandan genocide leaders and followers have suffered major military defeats, first throughout Rwanda in summer 1994 and then in eastern Congo and northwest Rwanda in 1996-98, these defeats were not complete. In Rwanda, several hundred thousand persons implicated in the genocide have since been tried and convicted, served their sentences, and been reintegrated into Rwandan society. But thousands of other perpetrators and supporters have benefitted from what amounts to a peculiar life-support system outside Rwanda : de facto safe havens in many parts of Africa, Europe and North America, and extensive (whether witting or unwitting, voluntary or involuntary) material, political and moral support from a range of UN agencies and Western officials, churches, NGOs, and intellectuals. Crypto-racist or politically expedient denial and trivialization of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi has been a pervasive phenomenon in the West for the past 18 years, particularly but not only among the French political elite, Christian Democratic and Catholic Church circles, and a range of Belgian and Dutch NGOs.(2)
In this context, those Rwandan Hutu who continue to draw a permanent fault line between purported Hutu and Tutsi communities, to hold that this alleged fault line must define Rwandan politics, and to hope to return to power, have done none of the soul searching done by post-Holocaust Germans.
HRW’s discourse has been an important part of their life-support system, particularly over the past twelve years. This discourse — what is said and left unsaid, what is highlighted and what is downplayed, what is averred and what is implied — can best be understood as four commands addressed to the post-genocide Rwandan government :
• Let the genocidal parties back in.
• Do not outlaw their ideology.
• Don’t hold more than a few perpetrators accountable, and forget about their foreign accomplices.
• Admit that you are no better than they.
HRW has used a variety of strategies to press Western governments and international bodies to back up these commands, including forceful advocacy for economic sanctions and the arrest of senior Rwandan officials. If successfully imposed, they could certainly restore Hutu/Tutsi identity politics (a vestige of the racist fantasies imposed by European officers and Catholic missionaries in the colonial era) as the basis of Rwandan governance. Judging from the track record of such politics from the 1920s to 1994 and the nature of the groups who aspire to such politics today, this would likely reignite violence and reverse the rapid progress Rwanda has made on human development since 1994. This might ensure the livelihoods of a whole new generation of Western “humanitarians,” but it would be a catastrophe for Rwanda and its region.
How HRW has expressed these four commands over the past twenty years is detailed below, to dispel any illusion that HRW can be trusted in its treatment of Rwandan issues.
1. The seminal work of this soul-searching is Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt, Fordham University Press 2001, originally published in Germany in 1947.
2. The best published account of this life support system is by the renowned French historian of Central Africa Jean-Pierre Chrétien, Le Défi de l’Ethnisme – Rwanda et Burundi 1990-1996, Karthala, 1997, and updated edition 2012 ; see also his articles “Retour du Hutu Power” in Le Soir, December 19, 1994, and “Le génocide du Rwanda : un négationnisme structurel,” published on line July 25, 2010.
Table of Contents
II. ‘Let the Genocidal Parties Back In’
1. The RDR in 2010
2. The FDLR since 1994
3. The MDR in 2003
III. ‘Do Not Ban their Ideology’
IV. ‘Don’t Hold More Than a Few Perpetrators Accountable, Forget Their Foreign Accomplices’
1. Minimizing the relevance and scale of the genocide
2. Reducing the importance of post-genocide accountability
3. Don’t hold more than a few perpetrators accountable : condemning gacaca
4. Fighting transfers and extradition to Rwanda
5. Ignoring the impunity of fugitive genocide suspects
6. Forget about foreign accomplices : France, the Catholic Church
V. ‘Admit You Are No Better Than They’
1. Accusations in a mirror and moral equivalency
2. Small brush strokes to damn the RPF
3. Embracing the Gersony Report, pressing the ICTR to try RPF leaders
4. Endorsing the Bruguière and Merelles indictments
5. Touting the UN Mapping Report
6. Holding Kagame responsible for any renewed genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi
Richard Johnson served as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State from 1979 to 2002, specializing in Russian, East European and North African affairs. In 1992-93, as a Congressional Fellow, he was foreign policy advisor to Congressman Frank McCloskey. He has a BA and MA in Russian and East European Studies from the Universities of Wesleyan and Michigan, and a MS in National Security Studies from the U.S. National War College. Two essays he wrote at the War College in 1994, inspired by his experience as Desk Officer for Yugoslavia in 1990-92 (“The Pin-Stripe Approach to Genocide” and “Serbia and Russia : U.S. Appeasement and the Resurrection of Fascism”) were published in Stjepan Meštrović, ed., The Conceit of Innocence : Losing the Conscience of the West in the War against Bosnia. Some of his activities in dissent against U.S. policy in the Balkans in 1992-93 are cited in David Halberstam’s War in a Time for Peace and Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell : America in the Age of Genocide.
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