Wednesday, August 06, 2008

France And Rwanda Squabble Over History

France is hitting back at claims included in an official Rwandan report, that top officials in the French government knew the genocide in that country back in 1994 was going to take place, but did nothing about it. And it's not just civil servants who are implicated. The report mentions names including then-President Mitterrand, the then-PM Edouard Balladur, as well as two other men who later went on to be Prime Minister - Alain Juppe and Dominique de Villepin. Strong stuff then, although the allegations aren't entirely new.

First a quick bit of background. Fifteen years ago, most people in Rwanda were ethnic Hutus, with Tutsis making up a significant minority. France certainly gave support and weapons to the Hutu government during its civil war against the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, which ran throughout the early 90s. Shortly after that war ended, the Hutu president was killed when his plane was shot down. The Hutus (and the French) blamed the RPF, and within three months the Hutu regime had slaughtered almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. At this point, the RPF managed to defeat the Hutus and its leader Paul Kagame took power, a position he still holds today.

The role of the French in all this has always been a bit unclear. As the genocide began in 1994, the UN imposed an arms embargo, but there's little doubt the French continued to supply weapons to the Hutu government. UN officials even intercepted one shipment, but were powerless to do anything, as the French got round the embargo by saying the arms deals had already been agreed before the sanctions were enforced. On a very basic level, France wanted to help the (French speaking) Hutus over the (English speaking) RPF, as a way of maintaining their own influence in central Africa. The current French foreign minister recently admitted that "political mistakes" were made during this time, and it's this decision to back the Hutus at all costs that he's referring to. It doesn't exactly make all those senior French politicians complicit in the genocide, but it's clear their approach to the crisis did precisely nothing to help end it.

As for the French, they've had plenty to say in the past about Mr Kagame. A couple of years ago a judge in France called for him to stand trial over the 1994 shooting down of the Rwandan president's plane, essentially accusing him of carrying out the act that began the genocide. In response, Mr Kagame broke off diplomatic relations with Paris and applied to join the Commonwealth, firmly taking Rwanda out of France's diplomatic orbit.

There are probably elements of truth in what both sides are saying. Mr Kagame's RPF probably did shoot down that plane, although it correctly points out there were plenty of other people with reason to do it. France probably did give far too much support to the Hutu government, even after it became obvious one of the worst ever acts of genocide was taking place. This ongoing spat has more to do with both sides trying to cover up their own roles in what happened, rather than getting at the truth about what the other side may have done. And whatever either side did do, it was nothing compared to the real bad guys within the Hutu government. And as the Rwanda war crimes tribunal winds down this year, there are still several yet to face justice.

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