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A few weeks ago, a British journalist called me to discuss the human rights situation in Rwanda. We began by talking about the 2010 elections, in which President Paul Kagame was re-elected with 93% of the vote after three opposition parties had been excluded from the race; one opposition leader had been imprisoned; another opposition party member and an independent journalist were murdered; and a prominent government opponent narrowly escaped assassination in exile. After a few minutes, the journalist interrupted me and asked, in a puzzled tone: “Why does our government continue supporting Kagame? What is so special about Rwanda?”

There is something special about Rwanda: the genocide of 1994, which saw more than half a million people wiped out in three months in a killing campaign orchestrated by Hutu extremists against the Tutsi minority. Seventeen years have passed since the genocide. In many respects, Rwanda has got back on its feet remarkably quickly. The country has made considerable progress against certain development indicators – increased access to health and education services, for example. But there has been much less progress in other areas, in particular political rights, freedom of the press and the rule of law.

At the international level, Western governments are still struggling to come to terms with their collective guilt at failing to stop the genocide. It is hard to know what, if anything, they could do to usefully make up for their shocking inaction in 1994. But turning a blind eye to serious human rights abuses in present-day Rwanda, as well as massacres committed by Rwandan troops in neighbouring Congo – all the while pouring millions of dollars into the Rwandan government budget – is wrong in principle and damaging in practice.

The UK, despite the absence of historical ties to Rwanda, has been first in line. It remains the largest bilateral aid donor to Rwanda, and one of its strongest political supporters. It contributed over £380 million in aid between 1998 and 2008, and has announced an increase in annual spending from around £70 million in 2010-11 to an anticipated £90 million in 2014-15. Rwanda has become of one of its flagship countries for development in Africa. A group of Conservative Party members, headed by Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell, are currently on their annual “Project Umubano” visit to Rwanda. But while theyproudly assist in community projects in front of the television cameras, Rwandan journalists and opposition party members languish in prison for daring to criticise the government.

The UK’s attitude towards Rwanda’s human rights record is based on an artificial and short-sighted analysis. Despite an outward appearance of calm, Rwanda is a fragile country ruled by fear. The deep mistrust resulting from the genocide has been exacerbated by a government which does not tolerate criticism and keeps a close watch on all its citizens – Tutsi as well as Hutu – to ensure that no one is stepping out of line. Rwanda may score highly in terms of some development targets, but can its people really flourish in an environment in which they risk arrest, prolonged detention or, in the worst case scenario, death, simply for speaking their minds? If the UK is genuinely committed to inclusive development in Rwanda,it should use its influence to press for political openness and freedom of speech, and recognise that greater respect for human rights will enhance rather than threaten its development gains.

The gravity of the situation in Rwanda may have finally hit home with British policy-makers in May when two Rwandan nationals living in the UK were warned by the police of credible threats to their security. This, if nothing else, should surely trigger a serious and honest review of UK policy towards Rwanda.

Human Rights Watch has long been calling for such a policy review. In this context we provided evidence to the International Development Committee for its inquiry into the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s work on the Great Lakes region. Human Rights Watch is not calling for DFID to halt aid to Rwanda, but to attach a much higher priority to human rights – a message in line with DFID’s commitments, at least on paper. 

In 2006, the UK and Rwanda signed a ten year memorandum of understanding, which includes explicit commitments on human rights. Yet the UK has remained conspicuously silent when Rwanda has breached these commitments. Similarly, DFID’s operational plan for 2011-2015 talks of dialogue to help open political space and of “the UK’s ability candidly to raise and resolve issues of concern with the [Rwandan] government”. But until its programmes reflect these priorities, these words will be little more than lip-service. Even while using the language of human rights, DFID’s operational plan appears to be making excuses for abuses: “The constraints on rights and freedoms are to some degree explained by Rwanda’s post-genocide context,” it states. This does not bode well for DFID’s resolve to uphold its own commitments towards promoting human rights.

As they weigh up the evidence before them, the members of the International Development Committee may find themselves pondering the same question as the journalist: “Why does our government continue to support this regime so uncritically?” By confronting ministers with the human rights realities in Rwanda, the committee could help trigger that much-needed policy review. The committee could also encourage the UK government to support independent civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Rwanda, many of whom have been ground down by years of threats and intimidation. The re-emergence of a strong, independent domestic human rights movement could be a critical stepping stone towards inclusive development, peace and genuine democracy in Rwanda.

Carina Tertsakian is a Senior Researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

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