Friday, June 25, 2010

Nygaard Notes #457‏

Nygaard Notes
Independent Periodic News and Analysis
Number 457, June 24, 2010

On the Web at


This Week: Rwanda

1. “Quote” of the Week
2. Rwanda: Challenging the Conventional Narrative
3. Rwanda In Recent Years
4. Rethinking The Genocide: Info on Rwanda



In the last issue of the Notes I talked about narrative. Narratives are the stories that we have in our heads, the big stories that we use to make sense of all the little stories that we hear: news stories, gossip, facts, and so forth. I stressed the importance of critically examining those inside-our-heads stories to make sure that they are sensible and provide a good framework for the facts that we come across in our lives.

Recently in the news in the U.S. has been a story about a lawyer from Minnesota who was just released a few days ago from a Rwandan prison after being arrested on charges of “genocide ideology.” Despite the fact that he is a U.S. citizen, and was being held in violation of the principle of free expression that the U.S. supposedly stands for, there was no strong effort on the part of the U.S. government to win his release. This is an important story on many levels, and is a nearly-perfect opportunity to illustrate how a distorted narrative can seriously distort our capacity to respond to human rights issues.

I confess that, up until a couple of weeks ago, I was as ignorant about Rwanda as I suspect are most USAmericans. As I began to look into the background of the Erlinder case for the purposes of explaining it to my friends and readers, I quickly and painfully became aware that I knew next to nothing about the background, and that what I did “know” was mostly wrong, or at least incomplete. That is, I had swallowed the conventional narrative and I was dismayed to learn how misinformed I was.

The good news about this, and in some ways the main message of this issue of the Notes, is that it really took me very little time at all to address my ignorance and to correct my misunderstandings on this important story. As one of the sources I cite in this issue puts it, “The world must take another look at the Rwandan war so as to avoid visiting the same tragedy on other countries, be they in Africa or elsewhere.”

With that in mind, this issue takes a look at recent history in Rwanda.



“Quotes” of the Week

A pair of quotations this week.

“Quote” Number 1:

The first “Quote” is found on page 20 of an August 2009 report called “Rwanda’s Application for Membership of the Commonwealth: Report and Recommendations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.” It said there that:

“The genocide was (and continues to be) a defining moment in Rwanda. Yet there is considerable controversy about its origin and nature.”

“Quote” Number 2:

On November 19th 1996, the United Nations Security Council voted 14-1 to recommend a second five-year term as U.N. Secretary General for Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. The one vote was that of the United States, which stood alone in vetoing the recommendation. “Quote” Number 2 is the following sentence, uttered in 1998 by that same Boutros-Ghali:

“The genocide in Rwanda was 100 percent the responsibility of the Americans!”

No wonder the U.S. vetoed him. This “quote” comes from the English translation of Montreal-based scholar Robin Philpot's book “Ça ne s’est pas passé comme ça à Kigali.”

Elsewhere in this issue of the Notes I tell you where you can find the original documents in which both of these “Quotes” can be found.


Rwanda: Challenging the Conventional Narrative

When it comes to knowledge of Rwandan history, my guess is that most people in the U.S. fall into one of two basic groups: People who have read and heard about “The Genocide” in that country in 1994—maybe they have seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda”— and people who know absolutely nothing at all about Rwanda. While it may seem like the first group is ahead of the know-nothings, it ain’t necessarily so, since a very large percentage of what they “know” is only one version of the story, and much of it is inaccurate. So I’ll start by going back to basics.

Rwanda is a small, densely-populated country in Central Africa, bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the scene of incredible tumult in the early 1990s, culminating in a paroxysm of violence following the death of the President, Juvénal Habyarimana, in April of 1994. In the 100 days following the assassination, between 500,000 and one million people were killed.

The Conventional Narrative

Rwanda scholars Allan Stam and Christian Davenport report that “Like most people with an unsophisticated understanding of Rwandan history and politics, we began our research [in 1998] believing that what we were dealing with was one of the most straightforward cases of political violence in recent times.” A feature story in The Atlantic Monthly in 2001 offered a good, succinct example of the interpretation that most people have heard or seen: “In the course of a hundred days in 1994 the Hutu government of Rwanda and its extremist allies very nearly succeeded in exterminating the country's Tutsi minority. Using firearms, machetes, and a variety of garden implements, Hutu militiamen, soldiers, and ordinary citizens murdered some 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu. It was the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century.” (Faster than the 250,000 or so killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a few hours in 1945? No. Statements like this are red flags alerting us that we are in the presence of propaganda.)

A 2007 article in the London Guardian summarized the conventional narrative in one sentence: “Rwanda's civil war saw 800,000 Tutsis slaughtered by the Hutus—armed and supported by France.” Another widely-accepted part of the story is the U.S. role in all of this. That same Atlantic Monthly article referred to “a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will” as the explanation for a situation in which “the U.S. government knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene.”

That’s the conventional narrative: A “straightforward case” of tribal violence, in which a majority tried to wipe out a minority, with help from a major European power, while the U.S. stood by helplessly.

Genocide Denial?

Anyone with a different interpretation of the events of that time—and their numbers are growing—runs the risk of being accused of “denying the genocide.”

Montreal-based writer and activist Robin Philpot, one of the dissident scholars in this area, addresses the “genocide denial” charge, saying, “What about the genocide? What about the massacres? Everybody saw those images, the machetes, the bodies and skeletons. Nobody can claim that it did not happen. Of course not! However, the simplification of the Rwandan tragedy to a tale of ‘horrible Hutu génocidaires’ massacring ‘innocent Tutsis’ aided and abetted by France is aimed to hide the causes and protect the real criminals. Rwanda suffered a major human disaster. Like other such disasters, it had political causes. Any serious analysis will show unequivocally that that Manichaean, good guy-bad guy, tale was developed by Western imaginations for Western public opinion. The fact that tale has so easily taken root bears witness to our blind subservience to real power and historic contempt for Africa.”

Now, there’s a dissident voice for you! But he’s not the only one. In their 2009 book “The Politics of Genocide”, scholars Edward Herman and David Peterson suggest that the U.S. role may have been quite different than the conventional narrative would have it. They suggest that the U.S. may have actively supported one side in the conflict: the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. Here’s how Herman and Peterson sum it up:

“The invasions, assassinations, and mass slaughters by which the RPF shot its way to power in Kigali [Rwanda’s capital] advanced many objectives, and their support by the ‘enlightened’ states are regarded by many of the defense teams that practice before the ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] as reflecting a quid pro quo between Washington and the RPF: Washington gains a strong military presence in Central Africa, a diminution of its European rivals’ influence, proxy armies to serve its interests, and access to the raw material-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, known as Zaire into 1997); while the RPF renews Tutsi-minority control of Rwanda, and gains a free hand to kill any perceived internal rivals, along with a client state’s usual immunities, money, weapons, foreign investment, and a great deal of international prestige.”

(A “client state” is a smaller, weaker state that agrees to perform a strategic role in the interest of the U.S. government, in exchange for which they receive the support and protection of the World’s Only Superpower.)

There’s much, much more to say about this, but I’ll leave it there for now, given the constraints of this modest newsletter format.

What I am trying to indicate here is that there are at least two dramatically-differing versions of recent history in Rwanda. One is a simple story of senseless and inexplicable “ethnic violence” in which the U.S. was guilty only of neglect and ignorance. The other is a more complex story, one in which the United States had a more active role in pursuit of its own interests in the region. Those interests were served better by having one side prevail over the other in the struggle for power in Rwanda in the early 1990s.

If it is true that the U.S. bears some significant responsibility for such a massive tragedy—and I think it is true—then we in the U.S. have a responsibility to understand how and why that is so. (See the list elsewhere in this issue for a list of places to go to learn more about Rwanda.)

All of the above has to do with the one bit of Rwandan history that some people know about, The Genocide of 1994. That was 16 years ago. Has anything of importance happened in Rwanda since then? That’s the focus of the following article.


Rwanda In Recent Years

After 1994 the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, came to power in Rwanda. In 2000 the leader of the RPF, Paul Kagame, became President when the Tutsi-controlled Parliament voted him in. In August of 2003 there was a presidential election that Kagame won in a landslide.

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) reported after the 2003 elections that “According to official voting results, the US-backed Kagame won 95.1 percent of the vote.” A remarkable figure, given that Kagame’s party had been in power for nine years and “Social and economic conditions in Rwanda [were] disastrous,” according to WSWS, an assessment supported by other reports. Some of the explanation for the “landslide” can perhaps be seen in a 2009 report by Amnesty International, which stated that “The 2003 presidential elections and the 2008 legislative elections in Rwanda were marred by intimidation and political opposition activities were severely restricted.”

In the years since Kagame began his 7-year term—indeed, since Kagame’s party took power in 1994—there has been sharp disagreement about his record.

The Minneapolis-based online newspaper MinnPost reported recently, “In the decade since Kagame, 52, became Rwanda's president, he has been showered with honors and tributes. Last year alone, he won a Clinton Global Citizen Award from the former U.S. president's initiative, an international medal of peace presented by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in California, a ‘Children's Champion Award’ from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and a ‘Most Innovative People Award’ at the Lebanon 2020 Summit.”

Those are some of the “honors and tributes.” There’s another side to the story, however.

Rwanda’s ranking in the Human Development Index—put out by the United Nations Development Programme, a widely-accepted, if rough, gauge of national well-being—dropped from 158th out of 175 countries in 2003 to 167th out of 175 in 2009.

The human rights situation in Rwanda is problematic. Here are some comments from the 2009 Amnesty International report “Human Rights in Republic of Rwanda:” “Freedom of expression remained severely limited”; “War crimes and crimes against humanity committed during and after the genocide remained largely unprosecuted.” and “War crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] and RPA [Rwandan Patriotic Army] before, during and after the genocide remained largely unprosecuted”; and “Human rights work remained strictly controlled and limited by the government.”

On April 23 of this year Human Rights Watch said that recent actions by the Rwandan government demonstrate “a pattern of increasing restrictions on free expression in Rwanda ahead of August's presidential elections.”

Most relevant to this issue of Nygaard Notes, Amnesty reported that “The National Assembly [in Rwanda] amended the Constitution to give former Presidents immunity from prosecution for life, including for crimes under international law.”

Why would Rwanda pass such a law? It might have something to do with the status of the sitting President, Paul Kagame. The real-life hero of “Hotel Rwanda,” Paul Rusesabagina, in a letter to the Queen of England in 2006, stated that “President Kagame is an unrepentant criminal facing innumerable charges for crimes of war, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide...”

These are not just Rusesabagina’s opinion. Courts in both France and Spain agree that Kagame should come to trial under international law. A report from the Congo News Agency on December 12, 2008 stated that Kagame “is accused in the indictment [by a French court] of ordering the attack [in 1994] on the plane carrying then Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi. Their deaths led to the genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Judge Fernando Andreou Merelles of the Spanish Central Instruction Court issued indictments against 40 senior officers of the Rwanda Defense Forces formerly of the Rwanda Patriotic Army for committing mass killings after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. He said he also has evidence against Paul Kagame who only escaped indictment because he is a sitting president.”

In order to entertain the idea that the President, or other members of the ruling RPF, might have blood on their hands, one must re-think the conventional narrative of The Genocide, since that conventional narrative sees Kagame as a genocide-ending hero. So it’s important to know that in 2008 the Rwandan Parliament adopted the “Law Relating to the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Ideology,” commonly known as the “Genocide Ideology Law.” The National Lawyers Guild in the U.S. says that this law “defines genocide ideology broadly, requires no link to any genocidal act, and can be used to include a wide range of legitimate forms of expression, prohibiting speech protected by international conventions such as the Genocide Convention of 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966.”

The British free speech group Article 19 stated in a report last September that “Reports of authoritative media and human rights non-governmental organisations indicate that the legacy of genocide is being manipulated by the Rwandan government to suppress political dissent and opposition in a range of ways. Most significantly, this has been done through cases involving the crime of genocide ideology.”

What we see here is that the Rwandan president has arranged things so that he is legally out of the reach of the law for life and that to even think incorrect thoughts about some of the things of which he might be guilty makes one a criminal in Rwanda.

Which brings us to 2010, and the arrest of Minnesota human rights lawyer Peter Erlinder, which is what got Nygaard Notes interested in this story in the first place.

On April 30th of this year “a team of lawyers and process servers attempted to personally serve Rwandan President Paul Kagame with an eight count lawsuit,” according to Ann Garrison writing in the San Francisco Bay View. The eight counts include: Wrongful Death and Murder; Crimes against Humanity; Violation of the Rights of Life, Liberty and Security of Person; Assault and Battery; Violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and Torture.

One of the lawyers attempting to serve the papers was Peter Erlinder. Erlinder is one of the lawyers for the defense in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Erlinder also happens to be one of the lawyers defending one of the leaders of the opposition to Kagame, Victoire Ingabiré Umuhoza. “Ingabiré came back home in January 2010 after 16 years in exile in the Netherlands and immediately declared her interest in the country’s top political job,” according to the InterPress Service. That is, she plans to run for President against Kagame. Not only that, says MinnPost, but “She claimed that crimes had been committed against her Hutu people during the genocide as well as against the Tutsis. But only the Hutus were being prosecuted and punished, she said.”

The idea that members of the ethnic Tutsi group were not the only ones victimized in the crimes of 1994 is known in Rwanda as “Double Genocide Theory.” Garrison explains that “President Kagame accuses both Paul Rusesabagina, of Hotel Rwanda fame, and Victoire Ingabiré Umuhoza, the FDU-Inkingi Party’s presidential candidate, of ‘Double Genocide Theory’ because they dare to say that Hutus were also victims of crimes against humanity...”

So it was that on April 21st Ingabiré was arrested and charged with “Genocide ideology”. Peter Erlinder then went to Rwanda on May 23rd to defend Ingabiré against these charges, and shortly after his arrival he, too, was arrested, and charged with the same thing. This is not a technicality: these charges can land one in prison for 10 to 25 years.

It was the arrest of Mr. Erlinder and the strange response in this country to his arrest that got my attention. The State Department made no comment on the case until five days after Erlinder’s arrest, and then only said that the arrest of this U.S. citizen on grounds of incorrect speech “was the responsibility of the Rwandan government.” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley would only go so far as to say that “we would like to see him released on compassionate grounds.” No stirring defense of “free speech” or condemnation of the Rwandan government’s suppression of human rights. Odd, no?

One has only to imagine the response from the U.S. government and media if an official enemy of the United States—Iran, say, or Cuba—had made a similar arrest. The fact that there was such a mild and tepid response to Erlinder’s arrest in Rwanda told me that the U.S. must have an interest in this region. Subsequent research indicates that this is indeed true, and what we see here appears to be another case where the power of the United States was used to cause untold suffering in a far-away land, a story which U.S. voters and taxpayers have been propagandized to forget. Or, rather, to replace with another story that better fits the racist Grand Narrative that says the United States is the Shining City on a Hill and Africa is the Dark (uncivilized) Continent.

That Grand Narrative, like the conventional narrative of The Genocide in Rwanda, has been constructed to protect certain groups of people and their interests. When we focus on “senseless tribal (religious/ethnic/age-old) violence,” it interferes with our ability to see the senseless violence perpetrated in the name of Empire. And that is a violence that we can do something about.

Resources for more thoroughly addressing this propaganda appear below.


Rethinking The Genocide: Info on Rwanda

I came into this Rwanda research project already skeptical of the conventional narrative due to my knowledge of the history of U.S. policy in Africa, and of U.S. foreign policy in general. Beyond fostering my skepticism, my knowledge of history was invaluable in assessing the sources at which I looked, a small fraction of which make up the list you see below.

For those who choose to look at some of these resources, I should say that I believe that the facts you will find there are mostly accurate, to the best of my knowledge. But I also want readers to remember that facts by themselves only have meaning when they can be placed into a larger story. Stories give meaning to facts, and different stories give the same facts different meanings. The story of “The Genocide” in Rwanda illustrates this point extraordinarily well.

I’m fairly certain that all of the following sources would likely be considered “radical,” if not criminal, among supporters of the current government in Rwanda. In fact, the recently-released lawyer, Peter Erlinder, was arrested by the Rwandan government for saying some of the things you will read here.

Resources on Rwanda

For a very basic recent history of Rwanda—3 pages—see Amnesty International “Timeline: Rwanda.”

For a dissident version of the past 50 years or so of Rwandan history, see Christopher Black’s “The Hidden Story Behind Rwanda's Tragedy,” in Black Star News

A succinct look at the U.S. interest in Rwanda comes from Canadian academic and peace activist Michel Chossudovsky. His piece “Rwanda: Installing a US Protectorate in Central Africa,” can be found here:

Independent journalist Ann Garrison published a piece on April 8, 2010 in the Fog City Journal, a San Francisco Bay Area-based publication, called “Rwanda Genocide: Honoring the Dead
Without Honoring the Lies.” Find it here:

The Rwandan Documents Project was started by Peter Erlinder and its goal is “to collect and make available primary source materials from international and national agencies, governments, and courts that relate to the political and social history of Rwanda from 1990 to the present.” Check out “Articles and Commentaries” for some of Erlinder’s own writings:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) put out a report in August of 2009 called
“Rwanda’s Application for Membership of the Commonwealth: Report and Recommendations
of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.” Noting that there is “considerable misunderstanding, or at least confusion, about Rwanda’s history, the politics of the genocide of 1994, and the record of the government led by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) since the end of the genocide,” the report “examines the evolutionary factors which have shaped Rwanda’s present politics—particularly because the RPF evokes strong emotions of both approval and dislike.” The full 81-page report is found here:

The most recent summary of the human rights situation in Rwanda by Amnesty International is the 2009 Rwanda Report:

Those whose information about Rwanda has largely come from the movie “Hotel Rwanda” may wish to know something about the real-life hero of that movie. He founded The Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation which “advocates for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for Rwanda and the region.” Read about it here:

Quebec-based writer and activist Robin Philpot published a book called “Ça ne s’est pas passé comme ça à Kigali” (in English: “Rwanda 1994: Colonialism Dies Hard). The entire book is available online at the Taylor Report If you read nothing but the Conclusion, you will learn a lot.

Finally, the best list of resources (many more than in this list) is found on the website mentioned above, The Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation:


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