Chapter 4: Scouts at her Majesty’s Service
“It’s difficult to understand the Rwandan drama when you depend only on a
short stay in the country and on informers who work for specific interests.”
Georges-Henri Lévesque, February 1, 1995 43
“Before October 1990, there was not a single human rights organization in Rwanda. After the invasion they grew like mushrooms,” declared Faustin Twagiramungu who was Prime Minister of Rwanda in 1994 and 1995 and presidential candidate in 2003. “As for international NGOs, we really had no idea what they were up to. I met them all because I led a political party opposed to the Habyarimana government.” 44
Victories can loosen tongues and make people careless. We now know that the Rwandan Patriotic Front operated 36 active clandestine cells in Rwanda when it invaded on October 1, 1990, and that these cells worked through human rights groups. 45 The groups created after 1990 were supported financially and politically by the large European and North American human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch/Africa in New York (later to become Africa Watch), the Fédération internationale des droits de l’Homme in Paris, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal (now Rights and Democracy), African Rights in London, and several others. During the Rwandan war from 1990 to 1994 these groups provided the invading RPF army with a veneer of respectability.
Former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu claims that the international human rights groups were terribly biased before they even arrived in Rwanda. “They were all in close contact with the Tutsi diaspora dominated by the RPF.” Gilbert Ngijol is even more emphatic. The political attaché to UN secretary general’s special envoy maintains that “Financial support for the Rwandan human rights groups was a way to launder aid to the RPF army.”
Though many human rights declarations and reports were issued during the war, one particular commission stands out because of its devastating influence on the course of the war and also because of its dishonesty. The report was published in March 1993 by three of the above human rights groups and one African organization. The very title of the report betrays its bias: “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Rwanda since October 1, 1990.” 46
By limiting the investigation into rights violations after October 1, 1990, the Commission conveniently avoided investigating the worst crime in international law, namely the crime against peace and national sovereignty perpetrated by the invading RPF army. Such selectivity compromises the whole report. One wonders how so-called international human rights specialists could sign such a report with out feeling compelled, if only for their professional reputations, to ask the obvious first question on rights violations: who started the war?
In September 1994, two of the authors, William Schabas and André Paradis, showed how shoddy the Commission’s work was in a reply to an article I published in the Montreal daily La Presse criticizing the report. 47 “The date was chosen,” they wrote, “only because that was the date chosen by the Rwandan human rights organizations who sponsored the Commission”. 48
It is now known that the groups who sponsored the Commission were either directly founded by the RPF or infiltrated by it. One important sponsor, the Association rwandaise pour la défense des droits de l’Homme, just happened to be founded on September 30, 1990, the day before the RPF invaded Rwanda. Its founding chairman was Alponse-Marie Nkubito, who was seconded to the Commission during its visit to Rwanda in 1993. Nkubito was appointed Minister of Justice in the first government set up immediately following the RPF victory in July 1994. There is no doubt now that the RPF, the aggressor in a murderous war in Rwanda, was the driving force behind the Commission.
Even if the secret ties between the Commission and the RPF are disregarded, the report reeks of collusion since it barely mentions crimes committed by the RPF. Though Commission investigators spent two weeks in Rwanda, they only spent two hours in territory occupied by the RPF army. Moreover, William Schabas wrote in a self-aggrandizing article that the Commission went there only “to demonstrate our impartiality”. 49 Whereas the Habyarimana Government gave the Commission full freedom to investigate, the RPF only allowed Commission members to meet witnesses in the presence of armed RPF officers and soldiers. Under such restrictions and with so little time to look into RPF rights violations, the Commission should have refused to issue the report until it had thoroughly investigated RPF-controlled territory for the same length of time and under the same conditions it had enjoyed in government-controlled territory. The Commission chose however to sanction a selective, limited and partial inquiry, that was inherently unjust.
The report is a sham because of the time period chosen. It is a sham because of the commission’s collusion with the RPF. It is also a sham because of self-imposed limits to the Commission’s mandate. Schabas and Paradis claimed that their “Commission was in fact indifferent about the identity of the aggressor, because international law is not concerned about that question.” 50 Legalists may enjoy compartmentalizing international law to make it easier to understand, but common sense demands that the worst crime of all be investigated when the lives of millions are at stake.
Though the authors claim to be learned jurists working in the tradition of Nuremberg, they chose to reduce the scope of their work in a manner that nobody would have dreamed of doing in the first international criminal tribunal established in Nuremberg in 1945. The Nuremberg Tribunal looked first and foremost at the worst crime which was the crime against peace: the planning, preparation, initiation and waging of war of aggression. It then investigated how the war was conducted.
Schabas and Paradis are also mistaken about the relation between the right to self-determination and other human rights. The World Conference of the United Nations on Human Rights held in Vienna in June 1993 reaffirmed the spirit of Nuremberg. The Vienna Declaration and the Action Program specifies that the denial of the right of self-determination constitutes a human rights violation. Peoples have the right to legitimately engage in self-defence against all forms of foreign domination and occupation. Human rights are not limited to civil and political rights, nor to economic and social rights considered independently. They include the full right to self-determination, national sovereignty and independence, which encompasses the right not to be the target of foreign aggression as Rwanda was in October 1990. 51
To appreciate the importace of the crime that the Commission chose to ignore, it is particularly instructive to return to the judges’ rulings in Nuremberg. Judge Norman Birkett from the Nuremberg Tribunal wrote: “The charges in the Indictment that the defendants planned and waged aggressive wars are the charges of utmost gravity. […] To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from the other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The Commission also erred by ignoring the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights that compels signatories to protect the national sovereignty of other signatory states and that prohibits the use of one country’s territory by subversive elements or by refugees to invade another country. Signatories of the African Charter must prevent subversive or terrorist activities from being launched from their territory. By its very title, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights proclaims that individual and collective rights are inseparable and reflects the concerns of those who devised the Charter, such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, to preserve peace in African countries whose borders had been drawn by European colonialists. If the Commission had used the African Charter it would necessarily have investigated the October 1990 invasion of Rwanda by troops from Uganda.
The Commission could have published its report with a formal disclaimer about its numerous and serious shortcomings. On the contrary, it chose to launch the report with a massive media and public relations campaign vaunting the scope, credibility and prestige of the Commission and its authors. A lobbying campaign followed. All the foreign embassies and ministries were called on, as were the major European and North American funding organizations. The international reaction was swift and devastating. Belgium recalled its ambassador from Kigali. Within months, citing the report, Canada suspended 20 million dollars of aid to the Rwanda’s national university in Butare. The report became the pretext for an arms embargo on Rwanda, whereas the invading RPF army had no problem obtaining all the weapons it needed. From March 1993 on, the Commission’s report was the backdrop to all international meetings about or directly involving the Habyarimana Government.
The collusion between Commission members and the RPF has been clearly established. As indicated in Chapter 3, the RPF army used the Commission’s “revelations” to justify its major “punitive” offensive in northern Rwanda in February 1993. An RPF leader however had already written a letter to the pro-RPF newspaper Isibo on December 26, 1992, in which he announced that the invading army would wait for the report to be published before launching its offensive and breaking the cease-fire that had held since July 1992. 52 The results of the report were obviously a foregone conclusion for the RPF.
Over and above the report’s limited scope and the unacceptable relationship between the RPF and Commission members, the whole operation leaves a bad taste. It reeks of colonialism.
A Commission comprising mainly American, Canadian and French nationals spends two weeks in an African country and a month later issues a report that becomes the gospel in Western Foreign Affairs departments. Six of ten Commission members admitted that they knew nothing about Rwanda before going there in January 1993. None spoke the national language of Rwanda.
In any other situation, candidates for such a powerful commission with no experience or knowledge of the country in question would be expected to decline to participate to avoid the disapproval of their peers and the public. The members of this commission members had no such qualms. Could it be because they were dealing with remote Africa? Some even vaunted their lack of knowledge of Central Africa, saying that they had to look for Rwanda on the map before getting on the plane. As will be shown, the habit of boasting about one’s poor grasp of Africa prior to going on a mission to that continent has paradoxically been a constant for centuries in popular literature. It is a way to emphasize the gulf that separates Europe and Africa.
For some commission members, the mission appears to have been a lark. For instance, in a macabre description of grave-digging in northern Rwanda, William Schabas has himself identified as “Humphrey Bogart, alias Bill”, obviously a reference to the adventurer Bogart played in the 1951 film The African Queen.
Imagine the outcry if an international commission of African jurists who had never been in Canada and spoke neither English nor French came to investigate the living conditions of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. What if the same commission went to the United States to look into prison conditions for African Americans or the treatment of Muslims in that country since September 11, 2001. Chances are that the commission would not be allowed to leave the airport in Africa.
The Commission’s report on Rwandan human rights became the cornerstone on which the “right and proper tale” was built. Every book on Rwanda refers to it. Every film and television report cites it as proof of the genocidal intentions of Rwandan Hutus. Commission members became the main source of information about Rwanda in their respective countries. Media and foreign affairs departments sought them out. Reporters no longer had to find Rwandans to explain what was going on in their country. New resident experts with some two weeks experience in the country could now explain everything simply… and simplistically.
Some of the authors of the report dropped all reserve and attempts to appear neutral immediately following the assassination of President Habyarimana, and especially after the RPF took power in July 1994. A serious commission should have demanded that members maintain a certain reserve or neutrality whatever the outcome of the war. One commission member, Jean Carbonare, began working directly for the RPF as early as July 1994. William Schabas travelled back and forth from Canada to Kigali and basically operated as an FPR flack. He managed to obtain considerable Canadian aid money for the RPF and regularly boasted about being the author of that government’s organic genocide law. Rwanda became a staging point for his international career.
Alison Des Forges has promoted herself as the expert of experts in all the major trials in Arusha as though she understands Rwandans better than they understand themselves. “Alison Des Forges behaves as if she is Rwanda’s honorary consul,” complained former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu. “When I met her for the first time in 1992, even though she had done her thesis on Rwanda, it was obvious she knew very little about Rwanda.” Supporters of the “right and proper” make much of Ms Des Forges’ vast knowledge of Rwanda and of her selfless dedication. They conveniently forget to mention that she was employed by the United States State Department in 1990 and 1992 and that she maintained close relations with the US National Security Council and the Pentagon throughout the 1990s. 53
With the zeal of a Javert hounding Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, Alison Des Forges and William Schabas have pursued Rwandan Hutus throughout the world. Other Commission membres, such as Éric Gillet and Philippe Dahinden, also became expert prosecution witnesses in a variety of trials, including those at the ICTR in Arusha.
Ten years after the Commission, important lessons can be learned about it and its impact on the unfolding events in Rwanda. Human rights are the unofficial religion and uncontested foreign policy of Western countries and particularly the United States. Like the environment, democracy and motherhood, everybody is obviously in favour of human rights. Who could think of being against them? Such unanimity is always dangerous. When the slightest doubt is raised about someone’s commitment to such motherhood issues, the unanimity mutates into intolerance and provokes an almost religious fervour that drowns out the facts. From that time on, the normal rules guiding international relations give way to the mentality of the lynch mob or the inquisition. “Aren’t we all just nice, reasonable and tolerant people? The problem is those people over there. We’ll stone them and everything will be fine!”
People in Quebec understand this problem. Early in the 1990s, they too were targeted by a international campaign that had many similar features following a series of crises (i.e., the Meech Lake constitutional crisis, Oka and James Bay hydroelectric development). Though the accusers knew nothing about Quebec, they claimed to be defenders of the Aboriginal peoples and the environment and did not hesitate to use heavy artillery that included accusations of genocide, racism and serious human rights violations, that all found their way into mainstream American media.
The RPF understood the nature of Western public opinion and particularly US opinion. They knew that they could easily find craven visibility seekers who would carry the ball for them in Western countries.
Imperial strategists in North America and Europe also undoubtedly looked favourably on the publication of a report that devastated the Habyarimana government and spared the Rwandan Patriotic Front. After all, the same powers had effectively sanctioned the military occupation of part of Rwanda when they launched the euphemistic peace process in Arusha. They were imposing a new economic model on the country, the so-called Structural Adjustment Program, as well as a new political model while war raged on. This new weapon provided by right-thinking experts form Europe and North America simply rounded out the arsenal at their disposal.
43 Le Devoir, Montréal, February 1st 1995. Father Georges-Henri Lévesque founded the National University of Rwanda.
44 Interview with the author, Brussels, November 23, 2002.
45 Reed, William Cyrus, Exile, Reform and the Rise of the RPF, in Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1996, p. 496
46 The authors of the report are Jean Carbonare, Agir ensemble pour les droits de l’Homme, Paris; Philippe Dahinden, jurist and journalist, Lausanne; René Degni-Segui, Dean of the Law Faculty, Abidjan; Alison Des Forges, Africa Watch; Pol Dodinval, M.D., Liège; Éric Gillet, FIDH, Brussels; Rein Odink, Jurist, Amsterdam; Halidou Ouedraogo, Judge, Burkina Faso; André Paradis, General Manager, Ligue des droits et libertés, Montreal, William Schabas, Law Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal.
47 “Ed Broadbent et la crise rwandaise : un rapport préparé avec insouciance”, La Presse, September 6, 1994, p. B3.
48 La Presse, September 14, 1994, p. B3.
49 Atrocities and the Law, A Canadian lawyer puts his legal skills to work literally uncovering and confirming evidence of human rights abuses in the African country of Rwanda, by William A. Schabas, in Canadian Lawyer, August/September 1993, p. 36.
50 La Presse, September 14, 1994, B3.
51 VIENNA DECLARATION AND PROGRAMME OF ACTION, WORLD CONFERENCE ON HUMAN RIGHTS, Vienna, 14-25 June 1993
52 Gasan, op. cit. p. 183.
53 Alison L. Des Forges’ curriculum vitae, 1995.