Yale lauds human rights achievements of man accused of human rights abuses

Rwandan President Paul Kagame. (Credit: Government of Rwanda)

Despite evidence of human rights abuses and funding rebels in neighboring countries, American universities continue to invite Rwandan President Paul Kagame to speak. Tonight he will deliver an address at Yale University, a decision met with immediate protest.

“His invitation to Yale is akin to offering a high-level platform to Bashar al-Assad, Omar al-Bashir or Joseph Kony years from now when their crimes against humanity are no longer in the spotlight. It is repugnant and an insult both to the victims and survivors of Mr. Kagame’s reign of terror,” wrote a student anonymously in the Yale Daily News yesterday.

It stands in sharp contrast to the way Kagame is described by Yale. The biography accompanying the event details notes that he “has received recognition for his leadership in numerous areas, including peace building and reconciliation, development, good governance, promotion of human rights and women’s empowerment, and the advancement of education and information and communications technology.” Nowhere does it say that he led a constitutional change to extend his power nor is there a mention of supporting the M23 rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“It’s embarrassing that Yale would give him a platform,” Vincent DeGennaro, president of Innovating Health International in Haiti, told Humanosphere. “Everyone overlooks the human rights abuses because of the economics and health gains.”

DeGennaro worked as a doctor in Rwanda but left his position with an aid group working in the country because of concerns about ongoing human rights abuses. He does not want to see Yale turn away people like Kagame, rather thinks they should have provided a complete biography noting both the successes and failures of the Rwandan leader. When Columbia University hosted then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he was introduced as a holocaust denier and had to answer questions regarding human rights. Yale should emulate that and ensure that the public audience can ask Kagame any question they’d like.

Other critics condemned the event. The Yale Law Community wrote an open letter to the university criticizing the whitewashing of Kagame’s human rights violations. The letter said the invitation ignored his record and placed human rights below achieving development goals.

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“We recognize President Kagame’s role in ending the genocide in Rwanda and bringing economic and social stability to his country. But these accomplishments ought not to obscure the serious human rights violations that have occurred under his leadership,” said the letter, which also called for people to sign it in support and join a teach-in proceeding the event.

Some people mistakenly criticized Yale for honoring Kagame’s human rights record. While his biography takes a positive tone, he is there to speak at an event sponsored by Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, not to deliver an honorary speech. Previous speakers include Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo, former International Criminal Court lead prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and journalist Nicholas Kristof. The event is like others featuring Kagame. Earlier this year he delivered remarks at Harvard, an event that also garnered strong opposition.

“Does Harvard want to keep letting its name be used by a ruthless dictator? I do not think so. It is hard to imagine that Harvard would open its doors to leaders that are responsible for similar such atrocities, such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria or Omar al-Bashir from Sudan,” wrote Sacha Yabili, a Congolese student at Harvard Business School, in The Crimson. “By welcoming Kagame, Harvard is abdicating its moral responsibility to denounce tyrannical regimes and to give a voice to the voiceless. Our motto as a school is Veritas – truth. Yet this weekend, we find ourselves not speaking truth to power. This is wrong.”

Like the anonymous writer at Yale, Yabili argued that the human rights abuses carried out by Kagame are opposed to the values of the university. However, unlike Assad, Bashir, and Kony, Kagame leads a country that is making massive gains in areas like maternal health, education and poverty reduction. The autocratic system of government makes life better for Rwandans but also cracks down on dissent and free speech. Changes in the health-care system are implemented as soon as they are made, enabling the kind of instant change that is impossible in more democratic countries.

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“He is an autocratic leader who will provide health care to the poor and murder dissidents,” said DeGennaro. “Multinational organizations are shut out of the country if they don’t do exactly what they are asked to do.”

It is a line that both Yale and Harvard have to toe. Both universities partner with the Rwandan Ministry of Health’s Human Resources for Health Program. The U.S.-funded project helps to train health workers to fulfill the physical and technical needs of the work force. The experts work with Rwandan organizations and schools to build up their ability to eventually independently train nurses, doctors and other health workers. It is a place where the country still needs outside help, DeGennaro said.

Continuing the partnership means making sure not to offend Kagame. Academics and journalists critical of the government are banned from entering the country. Kagame’s Twitter account regularly blocks people (including myself) in an effort to shut out dissent. Anjan Sundaram’s new book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, details the crackdowns on the press corps and free speech that effectively ended the possibility of a free press.

Election rigging and ordering the assassination of opponents also act to build Kagame’s power. Opponents and critics both in and out of the country are cast as sympathetic to the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. The varying forces coalesce to allow the leader of a small African country to maintain international support from the likes of President Clinton and the ability to speak at places like Yale without significant challenge.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.