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Genocide anniversary reignites French-Rwandan political tensions

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, center-left, light a memorial flame at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, center-left, light a memorial flame at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis

“The genocide we remember today –  and the world’s failure to respond more quickly – reminds us that we always have a choice,” said US President Obama in a statement marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, today.

“The horrific events of those 100 days – when friend turned against friend, and neighbor against neighbor – compel us to resist our worst instincts, just as the courage of those who risked their lives to save others reminds us of our obligations to our fellow man.”

Rwandan President Paul Kagame lit a flame at the ceremony that will burn for the next 100 days, in what was reportedly an emotional commemoration. It represents the period of time when an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed by Hutu soldiers.

Notably absent from the day’s events was France. France canceled its participation in today’s genocide commemorations in Rwanda after the nation’s leader accused the country of being directly involved in the genocide.

The Kagame-led government has remained critical of France for its role in the genocide. Accusations include helping the Hutu soldiers who carried out the atrocities in 1994 escape. There have been further allusions made regarding the fact that France helped to train the Rwandan military prior to the genocide.

“The Western powers would like the Rwanda is an ordinary country, as if nothing had happened, which have the advantage to forget their own responsibilities, but it is impossible. Take the case of France. Twenty years after, the only eligible reproach in his eyes is that of not having done enough to save lives during the genocide,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame in an interview with Jeune Afrique, conducted in French.

Advance word about the comments in the article led French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to cancel her planned trip for today’s memorial events, held in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. Reports of France boycotting the ceremonies were denied to the New York Times. However that decision was soon taken out of the hands of France. Rwanda responded by preventing the French ambassador from also attending.

“Yesterday night the Rwandan foreign ministry telephoned to inform me that I was no longer accredited for the ceremonies,” said French ambassador Michel Flesch.

The Kagame interview with Jeune Afrique further saw him condemn the “direct role of Belgium and France in the political preparation for the genocide.” When asked about the role of France and Rwanda’s relationship with the country in a France 24 interview, Kagame said France’s culpability was a matter of historical fact. He did not directly address what France did or did not do, but took issue with the assertion by the interviewer that Kagame’s was making baseless accusations.

Relations between Rwanda and France have been improving over the past few years. Kagame made his first bilateral visit to France since the genocide, in 2011. There he met with then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The previous year saw Sarkozy make a visit to Rwanda. Both events were taken as signs that Rwanda was warming up to France.

More recently, former Rwandan spy chief Pascal Simbikangwa was given a 25 year jail sentence in France, last month, for his role in the genocide. France has gone on to admit that mistakes were made in regards to the 1994 genocide, even apologizing for not taking the necessary actions to prevent it from happening altogether. However, the country continues to disagree with claims that it had a direct role in the atrocities that were carried out.

The Rwandan government and its leader have become increasingly divisive in the court of public opinion. Kagame can count on some important supporters, such as former British PM Tony Blair and former US president Bill Clinton, but has been criticized for fueling violence in neighboring Congo and silencing political dissent. Actions were taken against the country when it was revealed through a UN report that Rwanda was supporting rebels in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The country is also held up as a development wunderkind. Major strides have been made in regards to improving the health and incomes of Rwandans in a matter of only two decades since a significant portion of the nations population were slaughtered. The number of children under the age of five who die each year has declined from 230 per 1,000 live births in 1998 to 55 in 2012. Kagame deservedly gets a lot of the credit for steering the country towards stability and continued improvement.

While the disagreements over Rwanda continue, France is taking a more active role in the present situation in the the Central African Republic. The former French colony saw a coup take down the government a year ago. Fighting has seen targeting along religious lines, leading to concerns raised about the potential of genocide. France has sought to provide military and humanitarian aid to alleviate the problem, but it is still a worrying situation say UN officials and NGOs.

“The international community cannot claim to care about atrocity crimes and then shrink from what it actually means to prevent them. Global leaders should do more to prevent the preventable, and to counter the cruelty taking place before our eyes,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in his remarks regarding Rwanda and alluding to current insecurity in parts of the world.

“People everywhere should place themselves in the shoes of the vulnerable, from Syria to the Central African Republic, and ask themselves what more they can do to build a world of human rights and dignity for all. Let us show people facing dire threats that they are not alone or abandoned – and that the lifeline they need is on its way.”


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]