French bank BNP accused of “complicity” in Rwanda genocide

French bank BNP accused of “complicity” in Rwanda genocide©Tony Karumba/AFP
Théoneste Bagosora (in the tie) talks to his lawyer Raphaël Constant just after the trial court judgment on December 18, 2008 on
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Three non-governmental organizations on Thursday filed a lawsuit against French bank BNP Paribas for “complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”, they announced.

Anti-corruption group Sherpa, the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR) and Ibuka France accuse BNP Paribas of having knowingly enabled the former Rwandan government to buy arms in the midst of the genocide and in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. According to their press release, the three NGOs accuse the French bank of transferring “1.3 million dollars held by its client the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR) to the Swiss account of a South African arms dealer”, Willem Tertius Ehlers, in June 1994.

They allege that this South African intermediary went with Rwandan army colonel Théoneste Bagosora to the Seychelles and reached agreement on June 17, 1994, on the sale of 80 tonnes of arms, which were then delivered to Gisenyi in western Rwanda via Goma (eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, then called Zaire).

At the time, Théoneste Bagosora was chief of staff in the Ministry of Defence. During his testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Bagosora confirmed that arms arriving from the Seychelles via Goma had given Kigali “a helping hand”, according to the NGO communiqué.

Bagosora, whom the prosecution presented as the “brains” behind the genocide, was sentenced to 35 years in jail, which he is currently serving in a Malian prison. 

The three NGOs says that Banque Bruxelles Lambert (BBL), a Belgian bank, was also approached by the Rwandan government but turned down its request, for fear of breaking the UN embargo. BNP was the only bank that agreed to this transfer of funds, they say, even though the French bank knew it could contribute to the genocide that was taking place against Tutsis in Rwanda.

A first in France

A spokesman for BNP Paribas told French news agency AFP it could not comment on the claims, saying it did not yet have "sufficient details". This is the first time in France that a bank has been accused of complicity in such serious crimes. “The preventive aspect of financial institutions’ duty to remain vigilant, as adopted on February 21 this year, should help avoid their involvement in such violations,” said Sherpa’s programme director Sandra Cossart, as quoted in the communiqué.

The lawsuit was filed the day after the “XXI” magazine published a report containing damning new allegations about France’s role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It accuses the French authorities of having knowingly rearmed the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) in July 1994, in violation of the UN arms embargo.

According to “XXI”, the order to rearm them was at first opposed by some French officers but was finally carried out because it was signed by the secretary general of the president’s office at the time, Hubert Védrine.