Human rights experts have called on the Scottish Government to raise Rwanda’s poor human rights record with its leaders in any future dialogue, after an official announcement last week revealed increasing links between the two countries.
In last Thursday’s announcement about international development funding, the Scottish Government sang the praises of Rwanda’s government despite widespread reports of human rights abuses.
In the press release, the government said that it was going to focus Scottish international development funds on three partner countries in Africa – Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda – as well as Pakistan, dropping previous focus countries such as Tanzania.
It said of Rwanda: “Often known for all the wrong reasons due to the tragedy of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has made enormous strides since then, becoming an increasingly significant country in the East African community.
“Rwanda is a shining example of peacekeeping, stability, social development and more recently, gender equality. Scotland already has grassroots connections through the Rwanda Scotland Alliance, and an Honorary Consul for Rwanda to Scotland to help support and build Government to Government relationships.”
The Scottish Government press release came out on the same day that human rights charity Human Rights Watch called for information on the whereabouts of missing opposition activist Illuminée Iragena, feared dead, to be made known.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, along with the army and police, has been accused of removing political opponents, restricting freedom of the media, and his military have in the past been accused of involvement in protracted conflict in neighbouring DRC.
'Rwanda is hardly a shining example when it comes to human rights - freedom of expression is highly restricted' Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty Scotland
Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International’s Scotland programme director, said:
“While it’s encouraging that economic progress and development is continuing in Rwanda, it’s hardly a shining example when it comes to human rights. Freedom of expression is highly restricted with journalists, human rights activists, and political opponents of the Rwandan regime facing an extremely hostile environment.
“Unfair trials are still a cause for concern, and reports that people were pressured to petition Parliament to lift the two-term presidential term limit to allow President Kagame to stand for a third term in 2017 are troubling.
“It is important that the Scottish Government not only talk to government officials in Rwanda or any country they have connections with; they need to hear from civil society on the ground – including journalists and human rights activists who may have a vital perspective.”
Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch’s Rwanda specialist, told The Ferret that, while it was true that since the end of the genocide in 1994, Rwanda had made huge progress in terms of economic growth and rebuilding of the country, in terms of civil and political rights the story has not been so impressive.
“Since the current government came into power, it has been absolutely intolerant of any form of opposition, dissent or criticism. And unfortunately many foreign governments, including previous UK Governments, have downplayed Kagame’s human rights record. The Scottish Government should take the opportunity of any partnership with the Rwandan Government to raise these issues loud and clear.”
'The Scottish Government should take the opportunity of any partnership with the Rwandan Government to raise these issues loud and clear.' Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch
Presidential elections are due to take place next year, and the run-up to the previous 2010 elections was peppered with examples of intimidation and attacks on journalists and opposition members. Tertsakian expressed concern that the same could happen again.
Meanwhile, reports of homeless people, children and street vendors being rounded up and held in detention centres continue, with a Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year highlighting the problem.
According to the report: “Detainees have inadequate food, water, and health care; suffer frequent beatings; and rarely leave their filthy, overcrowded rooms. None of the former detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed were formally charged with any criminal offense and none saw a prosecutor, judge, or lawyer before or during their detention.”
When quizzed about working with the Rwandan Government, a Scottish Government spokesperson said:
“Respect for human rights is embedded in our existing International Framework through Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights.
“We want to secure democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights across the world and as such expect all states to comply with and respect human rights law and condemn human rights abuses wherever they occur.
“The Scottish Government raises human rights with governments and ministers where appropriate.”
'Respect for human rights is embedded in our existing International Framework through Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights' Scottish Government spokesperson
They did not specify if and when the Scottish Government might raise human rights with President Kagame or his Government.
Rwanda has been conscious in recent years of reputation management and has used London PR firm Racepoint PR to polish its international image.
However, the actions of its leaders have often been mired in controversy, with the current Government having both vocal fans and detractors.
A BBC documentary broadcast in 2014, Rwanda’s Untold Story, caused an uproar on transmission. Many people accused the BBC of ‘genocide denial’ and a government-appointed inquiry in Rwanda said that the BBC should face criminal charges for showing the programme.
Broadcasts by the BBC in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda language were suspended in the wake of the documentary and remain suspended.
Reporters Without Borders Africa desk head Cléa Kahn-Sriber said at the time:
“This decision just confirms the grave and constant decline in freedom of information in Rwanda.”
“Now that little remains of Rwanda’s own independent media, it seems that the government is focusing on the international news media, giving itself specific tools to legalize censorship. Space for the media is shrinking in Rwanda as the regulatory mechanisms are being changed to give the government ever more control.”
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was often criticised for his close links with President Kagame, and attempts by Times journalists to find out more about the relationship – and whether Blair had any commercial interests in the East African country, where his African Governance Initiative works – have been recently stymied by the UK Government.
'I’m a believer in and a supporter of Paul Kagame' Tony Blair
In 2010 Blair told the Guardian that he regarded Kagame as a “visionary leader” and a friend.
“I’m a believer in and a supporter of Paul Kagame. I don’t ignore all those criticisms, having said that. But I do think you’ve got to recognize that Rwanda is an immensely special case because of the genocide.
“Secondly, you can’t argue with the fact that Rwanda has gone on a remarkable path of development. Every time I visit Kigali and the surrounding areas you can just see the changes being made in the country.”
Blair’s African Governance Initiative provides consultants embedded at high levels of government in Rwanda, and the charity has been accused of representing ‘private diplomacy’ on a scale rivaling official British engagement.
Meanwhile, Cherie Blair recently represented head of the Rwandan intelligence services General Karenzi Karake when he was arrested in the UK and threatened with extradition to Spain on charges of alleged war crimes following the 1994 genocide.
Photo by Dylan Walters, Flickr