Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and the Meaning of 'Genocide'

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>LONDON -- A United Nations human rights body has set off a political storm with the leak of a report documenting atrocities by Rwanda soldiers in neighboring Congo.


Since 1996, the Tutsi-led Rwandan army has killed tens of thousands of Hutus in eastern Congo, according to the report, by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The majority of the victims were children, women and elderly people and the sick, who were often undernourished," the report says. It goes on that a '"very high number of Hutus [were] raped, burnt or beaten," and that there were "systematic massacres" by perpetrators wielding hammers.

The conduct constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity, the report says, "and could be classified as crimes of genocide."

The report, which was leaked last month to Le Monde and The New York Times, has brought a predictably indignant and angry response from the Rwandan government, which somewhat childishly has threatened to withdraw its troops who are part of the UN peacekeeping force in the Sudan. But it presents a challenge to Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, and also raises deep and troubling questions about the use of the word "genocide."

In 1994, Rwanda's Hutus carried out a wholesale slaughter of the country's Tutsis. Few hesitate to say it was genocide. It was halted only when Kagame's guerrilla army toppled the Hutu government. Hutus fled en masse. From the air, it was a staggering sight -- mile after mile after mile of men women and children, some in cars but most on foot, inching their way to safety along dusty roads into eastern Congo (then Zaire).

That memory was soon erased when a cholera epidemic of Biblical proportions killed thousands of the Hutu refugees. Each morning, their bodies wrapped in white cloth and laid beside roads, were thrown into trucks and dumped into mass graves being dug by heavy-duty back hoes.

Militant Hutus used the refuge camps as bases to launch attacks back into Rwanda. Rwandan forces first invaded in 1996, and eastern Congo has been engulfed by war, with Congolese rebels fighting alongside regular armies from as many as eight countries, but most of the Rwandan. 

With a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights assembled a team to investigate allegations of atrocities during a decade of fighting in eastern Congo.

Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, condemned the report as "fatally flawed" and "incredibly irresponsible."

It is the suggestion that the Rwandan troops may have engaged in genocide that cuts most deeply. The reaction to that, from the Rwandan government and its backers, could be summed up as "how dare you accuse us of genocide."

Or, as a government spokesman told The New York Times, "It is immoral and unacceptable that the United Nations, an organization that failed outright to prevent genocide in Rwanda and the subsequent refugees crisis that is the direct cause for so much suffering in Congo and Rwanda, now accuses the army that stopped the genocide of committing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo."

In light of the outrage, and Rwanda's threat to withdraw its peacekeepers from Sudan, the UN high commissioner for human rights has delayed releasing the final report.

It has been suggested that if the word "genocide" is not in the final report, it will be a sign that the UN caved to pressure from Rwanda.

But it is not that simple. The charge of "genocide" is now tossed around with reckless disregard. Western wildlife conservations in Africa have referred to the poaching of elephants for their ivory as "elephant genocide." Recently, Dr. Martin Luther King's niece Alveda King equated same-sex marriage with "genocide."

Which is not to diminish the UN report, which took two years, is based on interviews with 1,280 individuals and the examination of over 1,500 documents. At the human rights commission, a group of lawyers is now poring over the incidents in the report, to determine if, collectively, they amount to genocide. The term "genocide" was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punish of the Crime of Genocide defines it as acts intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such."

"In whole or in part"? "As such"? It is an exercise designed to delight law professors, Jesuitical and Talmudic scholars.

Will the UN report lose its potency if the conduct of the Rwandan soldiers does not constitute "genocide?"

The report still charges them with "war crimes," and "crimes against humanity," and Kagame can not ignore it. In nearly 600 pages, it carefully documents wrenching atrocities.

On Oct. 26, 1996, soldiers killed "several hundred" fleeing refugees. "They were shot, killed by blows from bayonets or hit by shrapnel. ... Most of the victims were women, children and the elderly."

On Nov. 3, 1996, troops gathered refugees into the headquarters of Cotonco, a cotton company, telling them that they were being sent home. They then burned the building, killing 72.

Around Nov. 22, soldiers asked refugees to assemble for a meeting. They promised they would slaughter a cow, to give them strength for their walk home. "At a give moment, however, a whistle sounded and the soldiers positioned all around the camp opened fire." Between 500 and 800 refugees were killed.

On Dec. 22, soldiers killed "at least 150 people," who had been hiding in the forest. The soldiers burned the bodies two days later.

Kagame has been much heralded in the West. He has brought remarkable political stability and economic growth to the tiny, landlocked country. Hutus and Tutsis live side by side in villages, individual income has tripled, the death penalty has been abolished, a majority of the parliament is women.

His image has been tarnished recently by his crackdown on political opponents and the press. "Rwandan Leader Heads to New Term Under Shadow of Repression," The New York Times wrote last month following the presidential election, which Kagame won with 93 percent of the vote.

Kagame responded with a column in the Financial Times, "Rwanda's democracy is still the model for Africa." He acknowledged that Rwanda democracy may not measure up to Western standards. But, he added, "For decades, one-size-fits all development and democratic prescriptions have been imposed on Africa, with unsatisfactory, sometimes tragic, results."

It is an argument often made by dictators. But it is also not without merit. With autocratic methods decried by Westerners, and human rights advocates, Lee Kwan Yew guided Singapore to an envied level of prosperity and one party "democracy."

The Rwandan president has occasionally been portrayed as Africa's Lee. If he wishes to be, he should borrow from the manner in which Lee dealt with corruption when he took over in 1965. It was, in effect, a zero-tolerance policy.  Anyone caught taking a bribe, whether a senior minister or the cop on the beat, was punished. Period.

Kagame's problem isn't corruption. It is the conduct of his country's soldiers.

Even if it is not genocide, Kagame cannot assume the moral high-ground and ignore the report. If he wants to be Lee Kwan Yew, if he wants Rwanda's democracy to the "the model for Africa," which it could be, he needs to punish the soldiers involved.

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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