Britain's ambassador to Rwanda, Nicholas Cannon, gave a revealing insight into British policy on Rwanda in his interview with the Rwandan News Agency (RNA) on 17 November.
British aid to countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia involves significant sums in budget support. In Rwanda's case, this is general budget support, with British taxpayers' money given directly to the central government. As Human Rights Watch and others have long documented, the Rwandan and Ethiopian governments are de facto one-party states. They may allow artificial space for civil society and limited or "in name only" political opposition, but the government and the ruling party are one and the same.
This UK budget support is supposed to underwrite social and economic development. The problem is that it is dispensed with minimal regard for the human rights and governance context. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, especially, independent international groups like Human Rights Watch are increasingly concerned that this kind of aid is underwriting repression.
Britain believes that its aid to Rwanda is morally irreproachable because the stated aim is helping the poorest. Who could reasonably argue with that? The problem lies not in intentions but in execution, and failing to understand the consequences of large sums being handed to authoritarian states without sufficient conditionality.
For one thing, this kind of aid can fuel a massive official patronage machine that includes the power to appoint - and dismiss - officials, channel aid to areas that support the ruling party and away from those that do not, fix the composition of election and other official commissions, and manipulate the composition of parliament and the judiciary. This particularly debilitating form of official corruption is used by repressive governments everywhere to marginalise civil society and eliminate opposition. In countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, the state (ie, the ruling party) also tends to become the biggest employer.
British officials say that accountability in Rwanda is about preventing aid from being diverted to private bank accounts. It should be about ensuring that citizens have genuine power over issues that affect their daily lives and the means to make the state responsive to their needs. In de facto one-party states like Rwanda and Ethiopia, budgetary aid actually risks making citizens accountable to their ruling parties. Both countries have poor records when it comes to basic freedoms, never mind free and fair elections.
Many in the human rights community see similarities between British aid policy towards states like Rwanda and China's approach to Africa. China's policy is more cynical, propping up unaccountable elites to suit its political and economic interests. It openly dismisses human rights concerns. Mr. Cannon says the UK is different because, for example, it has an intense dialogue with the Rwandans on "problems" in the country. Unfortunately, no-one can independently check that assertion. And Mr. Cannon undermines his own argument by saying that there are "very, very few areas in which you could say there were differences of opinion (between Rwanda and Britain)." He and his government will not even say publicly what they think Rwanda's governance problems are.
Actions speak louder than bland assurances. The UK and other governments have repeatedly turned a blind eye to Rwanda's repression. They kept quiet about last year's Parliamentary elections despite ample evidence of intimidation and fraud. They have stood by as the ruling RPF party has systematically harassed independent journalists and attempted to muzzle the press though a new draconian media law. There has been no meaningful insistence that Kigali amend its "genocide ideology" law that is so broad it makes almost any kind of criticism of the RPF illegal.
Donors have also done next to nothing while human rights defenders and moderate critics of the RPF are intimidated and forced to leave the country and as RPF officials openly interfere in court proceedings. And then there is Rwanda's ongoing and negative role in eastern Congo. Instead, Western officials spin tales about democratic transition, transformation and Rwanda heading in the right direction. Britain has even signed a new long-term budget support deal with the RPF without any meaningful governance benchmarks. British taxpayers should be asking more questions.
In his interview with RNA, Mr. Cannon also misrepresented Human Rights Watch's position on Rwanda's application to join the Commonwealth, which is likely to be approved in the next week or so at a summit in Trinidad and Tobago. He quotes the late Dr. Alison Des Forges, Human Rights Watch's senior Africa advisor and the world's leading expert on the Rwandan genocide, as supporting Rwanda's petition. Dr. Des Forges had four decades of experience working in the region and understood better than most foreign diplomats in Kigali the historical and political context of Rwanda. She frequently expressed concerns about the lack of rule of law, democratic principles, and freedom of expression in Rwanda. The RPF responded by barring her from the country in 2008.
Dr. Des Forges and her colleagues have urged the Commonwealth to insist that Rwanda make meaningful reforms before deciding on the application. She shared some of the concerns of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which determined Rwanda did not meet the membership criteria. Mr. Cannon criticises the CHRI and instead says a report produced by the Commonwealth Secretary-General's office backs Britain's official support for Rwanda's application. The problem is that the Commonwealth Secretariat says it will not publish this report. Why the lack of basic transparency if its arguments are so overwhelming?
The Commonwealth, like any organisation, has common rules that it expects members to respect. Former Jamaican Prime Minister P.G. Patterson was asked before the 2007 Commonwealth summit in Kampala to recommend benchmarks for assessing future applicants that - like Rwanda - lack historical connections to Britain's former colonial empire. He concluded that such applicants should be considered on a case-by-case basis but that all had to comply with the values, principles and priorities set out in Commonwealth declarations made over the years, among other things a commitment to democratic processes, free and fair elections and representative legislatures, the rule of law, protection of human rights, and freedom of expression.
Others have said that Rwanda should anyway be admitted to the Commonwealth so that it can be helped to improve on its problems. The precedents are not good. The same argument was used before Cameroon joined a while back; yet, under President Biya, Cameroon remains as authoritarian and as disrespectful of basic human rights as ever.
Of course, Mr. Cannon is the messenger in all this. Real responsibility for donor policies lies in their capitals. No-one is suggesting that Western governments should engage in unbridled megaphone diplomacy when confronting Rwanda's negative governance and human rights trajectory. But a bit more honesty and transparency would be a good start. There are some welcome, if tentative and long overdue, signs of this in British statements on Ethiopia.
But if Western donors continue to choose "quiet diplomacy" in Rwanda and Ethiopia they also have to show tangible results and account for these to their own taxpayers. The record to date is tacit appeasement of the RPF's repressive rule in Rwanda - even defending its more egregious behaviour. Sadly, this is just what we have learned to expect from Beijing.
Jon Elliott is the Africa Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch.