Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Rwanda takes a strict line on genocide denial. The US should support that.

To help Rwanda protect its postgenocide democracy from renewed ethnic divisions, Washington must be more alert to ideology at work there.

By Richard Johnson / June 28, 2010

Kigali, Rwanda

Arrogance, ignorance, and indifference to African victims of genocide have long been hallmarks of Western treatment of Rwanda. The US government should take care not to perpetuate this unfortunate tradition in the run-up to Rwanda’s presidential election in August and fan ethnic tensions in Rwanda.

Skip to next paragraph

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton admonished the Rwandan government on June 14 for its legal prosecution of “opposition figures” and “lawyers,” which she called political actions that should be reversed. Whoever drafted and vetted the secretary’s comments did her, and Rwanda, a disservice.

The “opposition figure” in question is Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan émigrée who returned to Rwanda from Europe in January to run for president. She had been living outside Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. Upon her return this year, she was soon charged with genocide denial, stirring up ethnic hatred, and collaborating with a rebel force based in eastern Congo – the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which is led by the remnants of the military officers and politicians who planned and perpetrated the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda.

The “lawyer” Secretary Clinton referred to is Peter Erlinder, an American who is a defense attorney for accused genocide perpetrators at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and a public spokesman for their cause. He portrays himself as a seeker of truth and justice, but is widely viewed within Rwanda as a conspiracy theorist and genocide denier. Mr. Erlinder came to Rwanda in late May to advise Ms. Ingabire. He was arrested, charged with genocide denial and endangering Rwandan security, then released on bail on June 17, on grounds of compassion for his physical and mental health problems. Though he has since returned to the US, Rwanda still aims to try him.

To Americans who follow what passes for news about this far-away African country (there is a lot going on right now, often troubling, but with no Western journalists based here, there is a dearth of in-depth reporting), Clinton’s remarks might seem like sound advice. But her intervention was harmful to Rwanda’s efforts to protect its post-genocide democracy from renewed ethnic divisions. The stakes are too high for an ad hoc approach.

In the case of Erlinder, the US has a duty to ensure that any American arrested overseas gets fair treatment. But to characterize his prosecution as “political” and to urge he be released on compassionate grounds, as the State Department did, goes well beyond this duty. It supposes that genocide denial is a victimless crime, and not legitimate grounds for legal action. Europe doesn’t see it that way. Nor of course does Rwanda, with its 300,000 still-traumatized genocide survivors. Why should we?

As for Ingabire, it is astonishing that the US would appear to go to bat for her. Ingabire claims to want reconciliation and democracy for Rwanda. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has campaigned for her to be allowed to compete in Rwanda’s election. But, surprisingly, HRW has not told its readers (including, no doubt, folks at the State Department) a word about the ideology and background of Ingabire’s party or the nature of her campaign. This can be remedied.

Ingabire is president of two Rwandan émigré parties based in Europe. One is the RDR, the other the FDU; they are essentially the same, save for the alphabet-soup acronym intrigue of émigré politics. Both are the descendents of the RDR party established in 1995 in eastern Congo by Rwandan military leaders of the 1994 genocide against the minority Rwandan Tutsi. Their intent was to replace, with less compromised faces, the Rwandan interim government that had committed the genocide and then retreated to eastern Congo.