Let’s Be Friends:The United States, Post-Genocide Rwanda, and Victor’s Justice in Arusha.
By: Luc Reydams
ABSTRACT: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda completed the trial phase of its mandate without prosecuting anyone from the victorious Rwandan Patriotic Front. This article examines whether the ICTR was doomed from the start to be a court of ‘victor’s justice.’ I explore the issue by re-examining the politics of its creation. Interviews with (former) US and UN ambassadors and hundreds of declassified diplomatic telegrams (‘cables’) and intelligence reports of the US Department of State shed new light on this process. My analysis concentrates on the strategy of the RPF vis-à-vis the international community and the responses of the United Nations and United States. I argue that understanding the evolution of the relation between Washington and Kigali – from an early, almost accidental support of the RPF to nearly unconditional backing – can help explain RPF impunity. I do not suggest that Washington planned to shield Kagame from international prosecution, or that the US was the only Security Council member to embrace him. However, once Washington entered into a partnership with the‘new’ Rwanda, it was committed to moving forward – and this implied burying the past and oftentimes also ignoring the present. The result was victor’s justice in Arusha – and seemingly
endless war in neighboring Congo.
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2197823
The year 2011 was not business as usual at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) based in Arusha, Tanzania. In June, Trial Chamber I rendered judgment in the longest trial in the history of international criminal justice.
The decision was uncontroversial but anybody who expected the Tribunal to dispose similarly of the remaining cases and quietly close
down was in for a surprise. Two decisions issued in December 2011 have come to undermine the dominant narrative that the genocide against the Tutsi was a carefully orchestrated crime. First the Appeals Chamber reduced the responsibility of Colonel Théoneste Bagosora (alleged mastermind of the genocide) and lowered his life sentence to 35 years. A week later, Trial Chamber III in the ‘MRND trial’ cast more doubt on the dominant narrative by stating that ‘the Prosecution has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Karemera and Ngirumpatse, or other leaders, planned the massacre of Tutsis in advance of the assassination of President Habyarimana’ and acknowledged ‘that the genocide may have started as a spontaneous reaction to the assassination of President Habyarimana, which was fuelled by the belief that the Tutsi-led RPF was responsible, and prior anti-Tutsi propaganda’.
Thus after seventeen years of investigations and trials costing $1.6 billion, the Prosecution has failed to prove a conspiracy by Hutu extremists to exterminate the Tutsis. As Stephen Smith, the former Africa editor of Le Monde, wrote in March 2011, ‘In 1994 a genocide was committed against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. All else about this small East African country, “the land of a thousand hills”, is open to question and, indeed, bears re-examination’. The official Rwandan response to the judgments was uncharacteristically muted. Whereas in the past the government of Rwanda had always been quick to express ‘outrage’ and orchestrate antiICTR demonstrations in the capital Kigali, it probably realized that it has little leverage over a tribunal that is winding down. Arguably the ICTR only became truly independent in its final stages when the cost of ignoring the Rwandan government became negligible.
This late-found independence, however, does not undo the failure to prosecute Paul Kagame and his victorious Rwandan Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/RPA) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The question arises whether the ICTR was doomed from the start to be a court – and instrument – of ‘victor’s justice.’ I will explore this issue by re-examining the politics of the ICTR’s creation. Although legally established in November 1994, the period under study starts in October 1990 at the beginning of the civil war and goes on to cover the two years before the Tribunal became fully operational in early 1997. Going back to 1990 allows me to describe the political context of the Great Lakes region and show how, when, and where Kagame and his RPF emerged, and how the international community, the United States in particular, reacted to and became involved in the Rwandan crisis. Hundreds of declassified diplomatic telegrams (‘cables’) and intelligence reports of the US Department of State shed new light on this whole period. My analysis concentrates on the strategy of the RPF vis-à-vis the international community and the responses of the United Nations and United States. In a previous publication, I claim that US leadership is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for successful international prosecutions. Building on that research, I argue that understanding the evolution of the relation between Washington and Kigali – from an early, almost accidental support of the RPF to nearly unconditional backing – can help explain RPF impunity. I conclude that, barring a coup and regime change in Rwanda, RPF accountability became an illusion from December 1994 on when a US Air Force Boeing 737 landed in Kigali carrying the National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, and a dozen staff from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the Department of State landed in Kigali. On that day, Rwanda became a partner of the United States and one of the consequences, I submit, was RPF immunity from Security Council censure and, by extension, from international prosecutions. My examination of US and UN–Rwandan relations on human rights and security issues over the following two years supports this hypothesis.
For clarity, I do not suggest that Washington planned to shield Kagame from international prosecution, or that the US was the only Security Council member to embrace him. The British government and Prime Minister Tony Blair personally became perhaps even stauncher defenders of the Rwandan strongman. However, once Washington (and London) entered into a partnership with the ‘new’ Rwanda, it was committed to moving forward – and this implied burying the past and oftentimes also ignoring the present. I also should like to emphasize that my focus on the RPF is intended to challenge the dominant narrative of the events in 1994 and demonstrate the existence of a serious impunity gap. This does not mean that I deny or excuse the crimes of the former regime. As a final caveat, my criticism of the ICTR’s one-sidedness is not meant to detract from its success in prosecuting the former regime. The article consists of four parts: I) Introduction, II) ‘The Politics of the Establishment of the ICTR Revisited’, III) Conclusion and IV) Postscript. It draws on published accounts of and interviews with former US and UN diplomats, a review of hundreds of declassified US diplomatic cables and intelligence reports, official UN documents, and the vast body of secondary literature on Rwanda and the ICTR. It should be noted that the cables come exclusively from the Department of State (not any other US agency), that they have only been declassified selectively, and that some cables are heavily redacted. Copies of the cables and reports used for this article have been made available on a website and can be examined.
II. THE POLITICS OF THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE ICTR REVISITED
My re-examination of the political and legislative history of the ICTR proceeds chronologically and is broken down into four periods: 1 October 1990 (start of the war) – 5 April 1994; 6 April 1994 (resumption of the war) – 18 July 1994 (RPF victory); 19 July 1994 – 16 December 1994 (visit of Anthony Lake to Kigali); and 17 December 1994 – February 1997 (opening first trial in Arusha and overhaul of Tribunal).
1 October 1990 – 5 April 1994
In his review of Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (2011) 21 Adam Hochschild observes that United States’ support of Rwandan strongman and current President Paul Kagame has contributed to Congo’s suffering. Hochschild remarks: ‘How this media-savvy autocrat has managed to convince so many American journalists, diplomats and political leaders that he is a great statesman, is worth a book in itself.’ Such a book, which has yet to be written, could help explain RPF impunity because, as the quotation from ICTR Registrar Adama Dieng at the beginning of this article suggests,Kagame was the RPF and vice versa. The sections below briefly summarize the origins of the RPF, the rise of Kagame, US attitudes during the first phase of the Rwandan crisis, and the RPF’s early determination to keep foreign interference out.
The RPF and Paul Kagame
The Rwandan Patriotic Front was founded in 1987 in Uganda by Tutsi exiles who had fought on the side of Yoweri Museveni in the ‘Ugandan Bush War’ (1981-1986). After the war, many of them joined the new Ugandan army as did Paul Kagame, who was soon promoted to become head of administration of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence. This position provided him with an opportunity to pursue his ambition to return to Rwanda – and restore Tutsi rule.
He plotted together with other Rwandan Tutsi refugees who had risen to positions of power in the Ugandan army. They stockpiled weapons and recruited other Rwandans to their cause. Ugandan President Museveni did not get in their way because having Rwandans play such an important role in his government was a political liability for him.
In mid-1990, Kagame was invited to the United States in the context of the International Military Education and Training program (IMET). On 1 October 1990, while Kagame was still in the US, thousands of Rwandans deserted their posts in the Ugandan army and crossed into Rwanda under the command of Fred Rwigema. But this operation ended in disaster. Rwigema was killed and his troops were repelled. For Kagame this was the trigger to return to Uganda and assume command of the RPF.
The United States and the Rwanda Crisis
Some see these events as ‘part one’ of a geopolitical plot to expand Anglo-Saxon influence in francophone Africa but it probably was just a coincidence. Until then, CIA and Pentagon officials were, reportedly, unaware that the IMET participant from Uganda was in fact a Rwandan and a co-founder of the RPF. According to the then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, who cannot be suspected of RPF sympathies, Washington had not received any reports from Kampala indicating that something was happening. ‘I was absolutely flabbergasted’ said Leonard Spearman, the then US Ambassador in Kigali.
Still, Kagame’s stint in the US gave him an opportunity to establish contacts in US military circles and, as he later acknowledged, to learn the power of communications and information warfare. However, it would be wrong to attribute more significance to this episode. It did not mean that the US assisted the RPF – although neither did they oppose it.
In his assessment of the period spent representing US interests in Africa, Herman Cohen later wrote:
Looking back at the first day of the crisis, 1 October 1990, why did we automatically exclude the policy option of informing Ugandan President Museveni that the invasion of Rwanda by uniformed members of the Ugandan army was totally unacceptable, and that the continuation of good relations between the United States and Uganda would depend on his getting the RPF back across the border? That the RPF were children of the Tutsi refugees of 1959-63 who were
forbidden to return gave the event a certain romantic poignancy. Had we analyzed the potential for disaster, however, we would not have silently acquiesced in the invasion. The fact that tens of thousands of Rwandans immediately became internally displaced as the RPF advanced should have served as a warning. Rwandans, including Tutsis, clearly did not view the RPF as liberators. At the time, the international donor community favored Uganda under Museveni’s leadership because of its successful economic reforms, its substantial economic growth, and its revival of Ugandan society after the disastrous years of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. We had no desire to challenge Museveni over Rwanda and thus quietly looked for other avenues of conflict management.
State Department cables from that period reveal an evenhanded approach consisting of quiet demarches by US ambassadors in Kigali and Kampala. But unlike the RPF leadership which enjoyed sanctuary in Uganda and was not so heavily pressed by the international community, the Rwandan government was vulnerable to military pressure from the RPF and to political and economic pressures from donor countries. As a result, a US intelligence analyst noted, ‘The RPF has been far less willing than the government to compromise. … It is likely that, while professing a willingness to talk and by being tactically flexible, the RPF will seek to delay substantive progress as long as possible and wait for Kigali to lower its bottom line’. The analyst concluded that if the peace talks fail, ‘the possibility of a genocidal war will loom’. The analyst was referring to the Arusha peace process that had been launched in July 1992 with US (and French) technical and financial assistance. Washington eventually became an official observer of the peace process but nothing more. Deeper involvement was resisted at the highest levels of the Department of State and other Departments. ‘It was not a Kuwait-level event. It was Africa.’
Talking Peace, Waging War
Citation: Reydams, Luc, Let’s Be Friends: The United States, Post-Genocide Rwanda, and Victor’s Justice in Arusha (January 1, 2013). Institute of Development Policy and Management (IOB) of the University of Antwerp Discussion Paper. Available at SSRN: