He’s been the darling of the West, invited to the White House and Downing Street, given awards and honorary degrees, feted by statesmen and lauded by business executives and aid donors.
But after the release of a damning United Nations investigation this week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame will have a lot of explaining to do.
The report documents how his top military commanders have supplied weapons and training to rebels led by an indicted war criminal in neighbouring Congo, in violation of UN sanctions and Congo’s sovereignty. The Rwandan-backed militia groups are fueling civil war and destabilizing Congo’s government, and Rwanda is even sending its own troops into Congo, the report says.
The Rwandan government has denied the charges, but the evidence is extensive, backed by multiple sources, scores of militia deserters, eye-witnesses and internal reports.
Mr. Kagame, a tough autocrat and former military commander who has ruled Rwanda since 1994, has been praised by the United States and Britain as an economic reformer who brought peace and stability to the victims of the Rwandan genocide.
Yet his government has a long history of crushing opposition groups and repressing the media and other independent voices, according to human rights groups. Most opposition leaders are excluded from its carefully orchestrated elections. It has also been linked to alleged assassinations, murders and death squads.
The latest report is the result of a six-month investigation by an official UN Group of Experts – a group of Congo specialists from six countries – who interviewed more than 80 deserters from armed militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including 31 Rwandans, along with intelligence officials, active militia members and many others. They also obtained Congolese army reports, radio intercepts and photos of weapons. To ensure accuracy, they verified each allegation with a minimum of five reliable sources.
The report found that Rwanda was supporting seven armed rebel groups in Congo. Of these, the most significant is a new group known as M23, which has seized strategic territory near the city of Goma in eastern Congo, just across the border from Rwanda.
M23 was created this year by Rwandan-backed mutineers from the Congo military. They are commanded by General Bosco Ntaganda, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for using child soldiers and committing other war crimes.
“Since the earliest stage of its inception, the Group documented a systematic pattern of military and political support provided to the M23 rebellion by Rwandan authorities,” says the report by the UN Group of Experts.
It says the Rwandan support for M23 has included weapons, ammunition, training, health care, transport through Rwandan territory, and scores of recruits, including child soldiers. This support was organized by Rwanda’s top military commanders, including its defence minister, the report says.
In the past, Rwanda has justified its involvement in Congo by pointing to the presence of Hutu rebels in Congo who seek the overthrown of the Kagame government. But analysts note that Rwandan leaders have extensive business and economic interests in eastern Congo, and its support for M23 has gone far beyond any combat with the Hutu rebels.
The UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, says many of the M23 leaders have an appalling record of alleged involvement in massacres and mass rapes.
A spokesman for the Congo government, Lambert Mende, has condemned Rwanda’s support for M23 and other rebels. The spokesman said three Rwandan battalions are on the ground with the rebels, and he said it would be astonishing if Mr. Kagame himself was unaware of his military’s heavy involvement.
“We would be very surprised if the number-one commander of the Rwandan armed forces could take the decision to send troops into foreign territory without the backing of the head of state and remain in office even one day after the president learned about it,” he told a press conference.
“If he remains in his position it will be clear to us that this arose from the wishes of someone higher up, in which case this is serious.”
In response to the UN report, Mr. Kagame’s government has adopted a simple policy: deny, deny, deny.
“This is a one-sided preliminary document based on partial findings and is still subject to verification,” said Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo. “We intend to provide factual evidence that the charges against Rwanda are false.”
She complained that the Group of Experts had failed to give the government any opportunity to respond to its report. But the Group said it has made repeated efforts to get Rwanda’s response to its findings since May.