“Guilt Should Not Blind Us” to Rwanda Abuses, Says Expert

“Guilt Should Not Blind Us” to Rwanda Abuses, Says Expert©UK Department for International Development
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda speaking in London, July 2012
3 min 17Approximate reading time

The surprise June 20, 2015 arrest in London of Rwandan spy chief Karenzi Karake on a Spanish arrest warrant brought strong protest from the Rwandan government. Karake is currently free on bail, pending hearings in October on whether he should be extradited to Spain to face war crimes charges.

Stephen W. Smith is professor of African studies at Duke University in the US, and a former Africa editor of leading French dailies Le Monde and Libération. In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times he says Karake’s arrest could mean that Rwandan President Paul Kagame “is no longer beyond the reach of international justice”. Stephen Smith answered questions from JusticeInfo.Net:

JusticeInfo.Net:  You seem to suggest in your article that Karenzi Karake, even if he should ever be found individually guilty of the crimes of which he is accused, is a “hostage” (and I quote you) of his boss, Rwandan President Paul Kagame. On what grounds do you say this?

Stephen Smith: As a member of the tightly-knit leadership group around President Kagame, most of whom are Tutsi returnees from Uganda, General Karenzi Karake has held command responsibilities since 1994. He played a prominent role in the mass killings of Hutus in Rwanda, he participated in the war in the neighboring DRC, namely in 2000 in the ‘battle of Kisangani’ where Congolese civilians were massacred, and he had already once been the head of the Rwandan intelligence services before falling from grace in 2010. So, in light of the regime’s appalling human rights record and Kagame’s increasingly despotic rule, the only viable option for him is to stick to the President. If he again falls out with Kagame, he’ll be imprisoned if not killed; if he flees abroad and lays low, he exposes his family to reprisals and himself to prosecution by international justice; if he flees and speaks out against Kagame’s regime, he risks being assassinated before concluding any plea-bargaining, as happened to one of his predecessors as Rwanda’s spy chief, Colonel Patrick Karegeya, who was murdered in his South African exile on 1st January 2014.

JusticeInfo.Net:  Do you think it likely that current procedures against Karenzi Karake in the UK will actually result in his extradition and trial in Spain?

SS: I wouldn’t want to comment on pending legal procedures. Evidently, political considerations also come to bear on this case. Diplomatic immunity could be invoked.

JusticeInfo.Net:  Why do you think Karake’s arrest in the UK “suggests that Mr. Kagame himself is no longer beyond the reach of international justice”?

    Stephen Smith, Duke University

SS: General Karenzi had visited the UK before on many occasions without being questioned on account of the Spanish arrest warrant issued in 2008. This time, he had an appointment with his British counterpart from MI6, Alex Younger, but their meeting was cancelled at short notice, 48 hours prior to his arrest. So the political protection Rwandan officials were enjoying, namely in the UK and the US, no longer works as it used to. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Kagame’s closest allies have turned around and are now after him. At this stage, according to diplomatic sources I’ve spoken to, they are rather putting pressure on the Rwandan president for him not to seek a third term in office, which would be in violation of the Constitution. In sum, they would be prepared to guarantee him impunity for the past as the price to pay for the stabilization of post-genocide Rwanda if, as one diplomat put it, “he accepted to bow out as a statesman”.

JusticeInfo.Net:  Couldn’t it be that there is no-one obvious to succeed him and he has done a lot for his country, at least on the economic front?

SS: Dictators routinely claim that there is no alternative to their rule, that they are the providential leader for their country which, were it not for them, would collapse. Even if this were true, Paul Kagame would be the first to blame as he has effectively been in power since 1994 and created the void around him. Why then let him stay on? As for the economic achievements, they can hardly compensate for massive human rights violations and the absence of democracy in a country where the lack of freedom and egregious abuses have already led to a genocide.

JusticeInfo.Net:  You talk about Western and UN “guilt” with regard to the 1994 genocide. Do you think this has waned, or is waning?

SS: The attempted extermination of the Tutsis in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred, ought to make us all feel permanently guilty - those who actually killed for their primary responsibility, and those who did not intervene for their failure to rescue the victims. But guilt should not blind us. The international community cannot avert its eyes from a place where its inaction has already allowed the ultimate collective crime to occur. If the same causes produce the same effects, then the outside world owes it to the dead in Rwanda to be more vigilant today. Aiding and abetting minority rule, electoral fraud, the suppression of political dissent and the silencing of civil society should hardly be the lesson learned from the 1994 genocide.