Twenty-three years ago, on the 6th of April, one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary history began. The Rwandan genocide, which took the lives of almost one million people in just about 100 days, occurred before the eyes of the world powers, whose representatives, impassive at the time, merely evacuated their personnel from the country and left the Rwandans to the mercy of the madness unleashed by a part of the population.
Why underline the deliberate inaction of the international community in the anniversary of such a tragedy? It reminds us that the international order established to preserve peace as well as the effectiveness — and even the honesty — of its sophisticated institutional framework can be highly questionable. Such institutions will certainly have difficulty regaining credibility particularly –but not only— among the Rwandan people.
But there is another important reason that perhaps goes unnoticed to highlight today the failure of the international community to stop a genocide that could have been easily averted. Twenty-three years later, such a failure is crucial to understand the current relationship between the government of Rwanda and its donors (or “development partners”, as they are called in Rwanda).
Let us see why. Rwandan development narrative is currently divided into two outlooks that are actually quite distant from one another, even opposing on occasion, which is disconcerting and to a certain extent quite surprising, since the same sources move between the two extremes. The predominant views within the international cooperation arena stress the Rwandan “miraculous” post-genocide recovery and the rapid progress that the country is experiencing. Let me provide some examples. Beyond widely recognised achievements in health and education, gender equality is often emphasised by the government and aid agencies in recognition of the fact that Rwanda has the highest share of women in Parliament in the world. But the merits go far beyond. The fact that Rwanda is becoming a regional hub of technological activities is also often referred to internationally, matching the aspirations of its government as reflected in Vision 2020, a key policy document launched in 2000 that depicts the future Rwanda as a self-sustainable, middle-income country.
Moreover, the capital city of the “country of a thousand hills” by far exceeds the levels of neatness and order normally found in its counterparts in Africa. Its clean streets with no rubbish nor plastic bags around (the latter were banned in 2008 by the government) are well-organised among green hills and magnificent buildings such as the City Tower or the new Kigali Convention Centre. It is common to observe more and more references in the international community to Kigali as a modern and well-prepared city capable of hosting key global events. Such events include the World Economic Forum on Africa held in May 2016 or the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in October of that same year, when an important agreement to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in order to fight climate change, dubbed the Kigali deal, was reached by more than 150 countries.
But even more noticeable, Rwanda often arises within the aid effectiveness field as an example of best practice, a showcase of success within a global context. The performance of the country in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) through popular governmental programmes such as Nine-Year Basic Education, One Cow per Poor Family, the Vision Umurenge Programme (a local development programme to reduce poverty and promote rural growth) and the Community-Based Health Insurance system does not pass unnoticed and it has often granted President Paul Kagame a seat close to the UN Secretary-General to celebrate the Rwandan success and share it with the world, as happened at the global launch of the 2015 MDGs Report in Oslo in July 2015, just to mention one recent event.
This trend towards progress in several spheres of social and economic life contrasts with another narrative of the country, perhaps less widespread, that highlights certain events where civil liberties and political rights of Rwandans appear to be severely undermined. In the past, it was primarily international organisations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International that denounced such constraints with somewhat limited coverage. Now, donor partners such as the US, the UK or the European Commission among others, which traditionally support strongly the government of Rwanda, have also begun to publicly note compromises in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
The concerns raised by the same donors that provide most of the resources take the form of official statements. A notorious case was the open letter dated 11th December 2015 from European Union Heads of Mission in Rwanda —including the representatives of Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and the EU — on the occasion of the Human Rights Day underlining their “continuing concerns in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of media, civil society development, freedom of association and other areas related to political rights in Rwanda”. Other recent examples are the Declaration of 3rd December 2015 on constitutional review in Rwanda by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy pointing to a lack of transparency regarding the procedures related to the plebiscite; or the press statement of 2nd January 2016 by the spokesperson of the Bureau of Public Affairs of the US government, which raised the identical issues.
But possibly the sharpest criticism in recent times comes from the European Parliament (EP), which through the “Resolution on Rwanda, the case of Victoire Ingabire (2016/2910 (RSP))” (5th October 2016) raised serious concerns about her imprisonment. Ingabire, considered by the EU to be a political prisoner (as the opposition leader of the Unified Democratic Forces), is serving a 15-year prison sentence for negationism and revisionism of the “Genocide against Tutsi” (the official name of the Rwandan genocide since the constitutional amendment of February 2008), in addition to conspiracy and terrorism.
This case has been particularly significant and notorious not only because of the political weight of the institution that denounces it (in addition to the EU institutions being among Rwanda’s biggest donors), but for the seriousness of the concerns raised in the area of civil liberties and political rights. Moreover, the resolution also explicitly asks the European Commission to evaluate its support for Rwanda “in order to ensure that this support fully promotes human rights, freedom of expression and association, political pluralism and independent civil society”. The Government of Rwanda has expressed its discontent with the EP resolution, claiming it lacks foundations since it results from a single event, i.e. the impossibility of accommodating a visit to Ms. Ingabire by a previous EP mission, which was not part of the official agenda formerly agreed.
Anyhow, this is not the place to properly analyse the allegations of deficits in political rights and civil liberties nor the extent of Rwandan progress. The few examples provided above are intended to show that those contrasting narratives are out there and that they are both difficult to ignore because they come from the same corner: Rwandan development partners. In Rwanda, one of the 10 most important aid recipient countries in Africa with gross official development assistance (ODA) disbursements amounting to more than 1 billion USD every year since 2010 (except 0.9 in 2012), the relationship between government and donors does not seem to be significantly affected by such increased criticism. It is the same international community that provides large resources the one that often combines praise for and criticism of Rwandan leaders. But why?
The impressive performance of the Rwandan government since 1994 in several socio-economic areas has made it possible today for many in the international cooperation field to refer to Rwanda as a success story of post-conflict reconstruction. This is crucial for understanding the current proactive and solid relationship between the government and its development partners. However, it is not sufficient to fully explain why concerns raised by the donors about shortfalls in political rights and civil liberties do not substantially affect their relationship with the government or the aid flows that support such a relationship.
The lack of morality exhibited by the international community in 1994 and the subsequent sense of guilt also need to be considered. They contributed to constructing the narrative that frames today the relation between the government of Rwanda and the development partners, which, as demanded by the former, is focused on purely developmental matters (i.e. health, education, infrastructure), largely displacing other considerations related to political rights and civil liberties. Thus, the fact that the international community ignored Rwanda in such difficult times reinforces the current official positions and ultimately appears to free the government from any perceived obligation to respond to the concerns raised by the international community, no matter how much support it might receive.
Today, the government of Rwanda and its donors are together immersed in a development path that is framed in the rhetoric described above. Such rhetoric sustained by “exemplarity” and “guilt” seems to lead donors to maintain their support to the government, combining praise with criticism in an attempt to possibly leave some record of a certain discontent with the current, ambiguous scenario. Nevertheless, the fact that donors engage in paradoxical behaviours does not change the fact that both donors and the government are not only worthy of the successes of the current development agenda but also responsible for its possible failures.
Today, however, is a day of mourning for the Rwandans, a feeling shared by many foreigners who only wish that our representatives had shown minimal moral values in Rwanda during the tragic events that began a 6th of April 23 years ago.
Asier Erdozain González, Università degli Studi di Milano