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Relations with Rwanda must be urgently reviewed

Andrew Mitchell is being questioned after giving £8m to a state with rebel links. UK silence on human rights abuses must end

Published in: The Guardian

The international development select committee (IDC) is today questioning Andrew Mitchell on his controversial decision to disburse £8m of UK budget support to the government of Rwanda, in his final hours as international development secretary and just six weeks after deciding to withhold this support, following allegations of Rwandan military backing for the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Human Rights Watch has documented egregious and systematic human rights abuses by the M23 rebels in DRC over the last six months. The group is largely made up of soldiers who mutinied from the Congolese national army in late March and May 2012. Its senior commanders have a well-known history of serious abuses. They include General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted on two arrest warrants by the international criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and several other individuals involved in massacres and the recruitment of children to fight in eastern Congo.

Recent M23 abuses in eastern Congo include the deliberate killing of civilians, summary executions and rape. Among the cases we documented was that of an eight-year-old girl raped by M23 fighters. In another sickening case, a 32-year old woman in the village of Chengerero was gang raped by M23 fighters, who then poured fuel between her legs and set the fuel on fire. The M23 have also forcibly recruited civilians into their ranks and executed some who tried to flee. These abuses and those of other armed groups have contributed to the quickly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region, with tens of thousands of people displaced by violence and fear.

Despite the Rwandan government's flat denials, Rwandan military support for the M23 has been significant throughout this period. During a visit to Kigali at the end of last month, I raised the issue of Rwanda's role with the main donors and embassies. Not one of them disputed the Rwandan army's direct involvement. Human Rights Watch's research shows clearly that Rwandan troops have been deployed in support of M23 operations, that ordinary Rwandans, including children, have been forcibly recruited and sent to Congo to fight with the M23, and that Rwandan military officials have supplied them with arms and ammunition. These findings match those of the UN Group of Experts on Congo, as detailed in their June interim report and in their final report, which has yet to be published but whose conclusions have been extensively leaked.

This is the backdrop to Mitchell's announcement of 4 September that he would release half the delayed £16m of general budget support. He justified this on the basis that "Rwanda has engaged constructively with the peace process initiated through the International Conference on the Great Lakes region". But Human Rights Watch sees no evidence to support this positive assessment of Rwanda's role in eastern DRC or of its constructive engagement to resolve the regional crisis. On the contrary, Rwandan military support to the M23 was ongoing from late July to early September – that is throughout the period in which UK aid was withheld and then disbursed.

The decision to resume half the delayed UK aid to Rwanda appears to have been taken hurriedly, with limited internal discussion across Whitehall or with high commission and Department for International Development (DfID) staff in Rwanda. It may also have been taken against the advice of some UK officials, though publication of the advice could easily resolve that issue. From recent discussions with major donor governments to Rwanda, including embassies in Kigali, it is further apparent that there was little if any consultation with other governments in advance of this decision. Mitchell's decision is at odds with the position of the UK's main partners: none of the other European governments that suspended aid to Rwanda around the same time, and for the same reasons, have since chosen to resume it.

While the focus of the IDC inquiry is UK aid and Rwanda's role in DRC, there are wider questions to be asked about UK policy towards Rwanda. Since the genocide of 1994, Rwanda has made very substantial and welcome progress economically and against some key development indicators. But this cannot excuse or justify the highly repressive nature of the Rwandan government, its attacks on members of Rwandan opposition parties, the politicisation of the judiciary, the emasculation of Rwandan NGOs, civil society and independent journalists, or the use of ill-treatment and torture in unlawful detention centres. In their eagerness to celebrate Rwanda's "development success" UK ministers have been shamefully silent about these persistent human rights abuses.

This neglect of rights concerns is no longer tenable. The new international development secretary, Justine Greening, should make the protection and advancement of human rights a much more central focus of DfID policy towards Rwanda. Human rights do feature in the text of a recently revised Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by DfID and the Rwandan government. But rights principles in previous MoUs have been largely ignored. This needs to change. DfID should also do more to support Rwandan civil society – those courageous Rwandan men and women pressing for reform and respect for basic freedoms from within the country, often at great personal risk to themselves. It should also reassess the appropriateness of general budget support for Rwanda and ensure that aid for Rwanda's poorest citizens and support for poverty reduction and development does not inadvertently entrench authoritarianism or repression.

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