// essays //
Paul Kagame and the Crisis of Politics and Human Rights
An audience assembled last September at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life to hear Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and activist Elie Wiesel talk about genocide in the 20th century. Nothing was supposed to be controversial. It was the other half of the conversation - the less famous man on the stage sitting a few feet from Mr. Wiesel - that called into question clear-cut theories about this subject.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame certainly has a great deal to contribute to a conversation about genocide, even if he’s not perceived as such a saintly figure as Wiesel. After all, he is credited with playing a significant role in ending the 1994 Rwandan Genocide by removing the extremist Hutu government power. With the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide approaching, I expected a reevaluation of where the global community is in its understanding of how to prevent genocide. I wasn’t ready for the frenzied intersection of human rights and politics, of virtue and power, which soon became brutally apparent.
As President Kagame began responding to one of the moderator’s questions, a man in the audience stood up and started yelling about Kagame’s own human rights abuses, specifically his indirect murder of Congolese civilians through support of the M23 rebel group. The protester was removed from the auditorium, and the dialogue on stage began to go in an entirely different direction. Did Kagame have a right to even be there?
The moderator tried to compensate for the criticism of Kagame, reiterating his accomplishments in ending the genocide and establishing stability in Rwanda. But the words could not be unsaid. The idea was there, and it persisted through the fragmented conversation that turned into a rigid question and answer session between the moderator and Kagame or Wiesel. It became clear to me that President Kagame was not like Elie Wiesel, who transcended political boundaries and quandaries. He was a fundamental piece of that structure - a leader of a nation and not of an idea or movement.
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New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman called Kagame “the global elite’s favorite strongman,” because while his human rights record may be questionable, the international political outcry against Kagame is not exceptionally vocal. World leaders seem to view him as a “godsend” and as an efficient leader in a continent dominated by men like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the Congo’s Joseph Kabila, both notorious for mismanaging their nations’ economies and doing little to stop, if not actively perpetuating, rampant corruption. Kagame has been active in the Rwandan government since 1994 and has served as president since 2000. During that time, he has commissioned numerous infrastructure projects, raised the percentage of women in Parliament, built new schools, helped increase life expectancy by twenty years, cut poverty rates, and reduce child mortality. Kagame has also set up an eagerly militaristic, violent strategy for Rwanda’s foreign relations and a repressive environment within Rwanda.
The M23 rebel troops that Kagame supports have been charged with widespread murder, rape, forced childhood recruitment, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Congolese people from their homes. The troops have acted as a destructive and destabilizing force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for years. Yet Kagame’s support for these rebels has not waned and has been consistently comprehensive, involving transport of weapons, soldiers, and recruited Rwandan children and Congolese refugees as well as the protection of a prominent M23 rebel leader. Though Kagame denies the support, both the United States and Britain are aware of this as well as of Kagame’s exploitation of Congolese minerals since 1996, when he insisted that installing a government loyal to him in the Congo would promote regional stability. President Kagame has therefore been involved with the internal affairs of the Congo for years, pursuing his policy at the expense of Congolese suffering. He has, ironically, been considered a possible instigator of genocide by the United Nations because of these actions. Nevertheless, he sat beside one of the world’s loudest voices against genocide and violence.
Kagame’s domestic policy has also attracted the scrutiny of international organizations, mostly for its dramatically curtailed individual freedoms. As Jennie Burnet explains in Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation, Kagame’s Rwandan Political Front has used the genocide as a method of justifying “rule by fiat” and as a way of silencing any non-Rwandan or Rwandan opponents of his government’s policies. With the excuse of preventing genocide and restoring a sense of justice, his government has detained around 115,000 prisoners - many of whom have not been charged with anything and have been subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. Opposition groups are stymied, the press is strictly censored, and civilian defense forces are used to ensure a pervasive sense of government monitoring and control. There is concern that these policies will only end with harshly divided groups of the kind that instigated the Rwandan genocide in the first place.
In an interview, Kagame explained the tradeoff of freedom for security, contending that since it is difficult for any nation or security force to avoid civilian deaths, the proper choice within these practical limitations is to do whatever results in fewer deaths. For example, it is better to kill a few dissidents than to experience another genocide, and it is better to harshly curtail freedom of speech than to manage potentially violent disputes. Kagame does commemorate victims of the genocide - but uses it as a trump card and actually justifies his inhumane actions based on them ostensibly being undertaken to avoid a repeat of the past.
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What standards do we have for the men and women we place on stages as models of efficacy, virtue, or brilliance? Should we be more careful about the type of leader we put in conversation with a man like Elie Wiesel - defined more by his convictions and morals than by his political orientation? What if that protestor had not stood up? Would the majority of the audience have known that President Kagame was far from representing a beacon of human rights? Would they have left thinking that he is a deeply ethical political leader working to prevent genocide, a peace activist-president the world had never witnessed before?
Perhaps our political world has become so convoluted that expecting politicians to consistently uphold human rights is unrealistic. Perhaps Kagame is neither wholly good nor bad; he’s simply a politician. And perhaps it takes a man with the moral courage of Elie Wiesel-- a man who has eschewed political ambitions-- to remind us that not everything can simply be written off in the name of realpolitik.
// CAMILLE PETERSON is a Freshman at Columbia College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo courtesy of www.cooper.edu.