Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a closing press conference following the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 10.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The timing was awkward. On the day when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was announcing plans to fly to Rwanda next week for a Commonwealth summit where peace and human rights will be on the agenda, U.S. diplomats were raising the alarm about reports of secret Rwandan military incursions into a neighbouring country.

At the same time, human-rights groups were voicing concern about the imprisonment and beating of Rwandan dissidents. A British government plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda was casting a spotlight on the country’s authoritarian record. And several journalists were disclosing that they have been denied permission to cover the summit, raising questions about press freedom in the country.

Mr. Trudeau, in his announcement on Wednesday, said the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, will take collective action on “defending democracy and human rights.”

He said the Commonwealth countries are united by “core values” that include “free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity.” The summit, he said, will allow “collaboration on continuing to hold Russia accountable for its unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine.”

The irony is that Rwanda itself seems to be violating those same values of democracy and human rights by jailing critics and manipulating elections, while allegedly launching its own cross-border military adventure in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through a proxy force, the M23 rebel group.

Congo’s government accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebels with artillery weapons and 500 commandos in disguise. Rwanda has denied the accusation, but U.S. officials and politicians have lent credence to the charge.

“Rwandan support for M23 rebels who are attacking civilians, UN peacekeepers and FARDC [the Congolese army] in eastern DRC is unacceptable,” said Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a tweet this week. “The world must stand united in condemning its actions.”

The summit is a huge windfall for its host, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who will boost his international stature by holding the post of Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next year.

Mr. Kagame, in a tweet on Thursday, said he had a “good telephone conversation” with Mr. Trudeau and was “happy to be welcoming him” to the summit to broaden Rwandan cooperation with Canada.

While many of his opponents have been barred from challenging him at the polls, Mr. Kagame has ruled Rwanda almost single-handedly for the past 28 years, winning elections with official victory margins of up to 99 per cent. The constitution has been amended to allow him to remain in power until 2034 if he keeps winning.

Some Rwandan dissidents and human-rights activists had called for a boycott of the Commonwealth summit, but Rwandan state-controlled media have reported that more than 40 world leaders will attend.

“Just a few kilometers away from the Kigali Convention Center, where Commonwealth government leaders will be discussing good governance, jailed Rwandan journalists and critics are brutally being reduced to silence,” said Lewis Mudge, Central African director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement this week.

At least two journalists, three social-media commentators and 16 opposition activists are currently in prison in Rwanda, and many have alleged that they have been beaten or abused by Rwandan authorities, according to HRW.

One of them is Aimable Karasira, a YouTube commentator who has spoken out about crimes committed by Mr. Kagame’s forces in 1994 during and after the Rwandan genocide. An estimated 800,000 people were killed over the course of 100 days, but the Kagame government has introduced laws to imprison anyone who contradicts the official history of the genocide – which blames Hutu extremists for all the killings.

In a court hearing last month, Mr. Karasira said he was tortured by prison authorities who beat him and used sleep-deprivation tactics.

“I’ve gone for days without sleeping,” he said, according to an HRW report. “It’s terrible torture, like in the movies.”

Meanwhile, several journalists – including Benedict Moran, a Canadian-based television journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported on human-rights abuses in Rwanda – have been denied accreditation to the Commonwealth summit, even though 10,000 other guests are expected to attend.

“We are obviously concerned that some journalists have not received accreditation,” said Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“It seems that organizers are claiming that they have been swamped with requests for accreditation and that not everyone can be accommodated,” she told The Globe and Mail on Thursday. “This obviously gives ‘cover’ to applications that may have been rejected because Kigali does not like critical or independent journalism.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.