Is Rwanda Backing Rebels Led by a War Criminal in Congo?

A U.N. report accuses Rwanda of recruiting and arming rebels in Congo led by a commander who's been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, casting a shadow over President Paul Kagame's sterling reputation in the West

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Noor Khamis / Reuters

Rwandan President Paul Kagame attends the inauguration of the new African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 28, 2012.

Mounting evidence that Rwanda is supplying arms and recruits to a rebellion led by an indicted war criminal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) is the latest indication that, in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, President Paul Kagame’s government will ensure its own security and interests even to the detriment of its neighbors and in defiance of international law.

Rwanda’s relations with Congo are defined by the genocide, in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu death squads. In the face of international inaction, Kagame, then-leader of a Tutsi-dominated rebel army, beat back the genocidaires, many of whom fled to Congo with millions of Hutu refugees, where they were sheltered in camps set up by international aid groups. For Kagame and the Rwandan government, the legacy of that experience—of genocide and international apathy, then the injustice of seeing the perpetrators still at large and benefitting from foreign assistance in Congo—was formative. Not only could Rwanda not rely on an international community that had proved itself so irrelevant in Rwanda’s hour of need, the country decided it would henceforth disregard international will if it felt its security was threatened. 

(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Paul Kagame)

At home, that prompted Kagame to propagate an ideology of laudable self-reliance. Aid was only accepted if humanitarian groups allowed themselves to be absorbed into government programs and private enterprise—this policy, not foreign donations, would be Rwanda’s path out of poverty. The result has been spectacular economic growth over the last decade that, at times, has outdone China. Abroad, however, that same dogged guarding of Rwanda’s national interests prompted Kagame to repeatedly intervene in Congo, supporting Tutsi-dominated militias in their fight against Hutu Rwandans and, on several occasions, sending the Rwandan army over the border, as well. Kagame argues that such aggressive foreign policy was necessary to prevent a recurrence of Africa’s Holocaust. While that desire is undeniably understandable, there is no doubt also that Rwanda’s interference in Congo sparked that country’s 1997-2003 civil war, in which tens of thousands were killed in fighting and millions more died from related hunger and disease. Equally, there is no disputing that Rwanda’s continuing intervention in eastern Congo adds to the instability of what is already an extremely fragile state.

Over the years, Rwanda has also come to face allegations that its motives are as much commercial as defensive. Eastern Congo is rich in minerals and the ownership of mines is frequently determined by military strength. “Armed groups closely linked to Kigali have been occupying this part of eastern Congo since 1996,” says Jason Stearns, a Congo specialist at the Kenya-based Rift Valley Institute and author of the Congo history, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters.“With them has emerged a political and business complex, people who could stand to lose if those networks are eroded or dismantled.”

(MORE: Congo’s Election Chaos: When Having the Vote Fixes Nothing)

The latest suspicions of Rwandan interference in eastern Congo were sparked in late April when former rebels from the Tutsi-dominated and Rwanda-supported National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), who were integrated into the Congolese national army as part of a 2009 peace deal, staged a mutiny. (The rebels called themselves M23 after the date of that deal: March 23). Their commander, Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including the use of child soldiers. The ICC also convicted his former boss, Thomas Lubanga, of similar charges earlier this year.

(MORE: French Inquiry Clears Rwanda’s Kagame of the Attack That Sparked the Genocide)

The first official word of Rwanda’s backing for M23 and Ntaganda came in a leaked U.N. debrief of 11 M23 defectors, including one child, conducted on May 23, in which the defectors claimed to be Rwandans and to have been recruited in Rwanda. Soon afterwards, New York-based Human Rights Watch made more detailed accusations based on interviews with 23 defectors, nine of whom also claimed they were recruited in Rwanda. “Rwandan military officials” were supplying M23 with “recruits, weapons and ammunition,” the group reported. The most damning evidence, however, has been compiled by the U.N.’s Group of Experts, a team that investigates violations of international sanctions in eastern Congo. In a 43-page addendum to its report, which was leaked to TIME and others, the U.N. group accuses Rwanda of providing “direct assistance in the creation of M23” and names three of Kagame’s closest confidantes, including Defense Minister James Kaberebe, as conspirators. “The Group has gathered overwhelming evidence demonstrating that senior [Rwandan army] officers, in their official capacities, have been backstopping the rebels through providing weapons, military supplies, and new recruits,” says the report.

Rwanda flatly denies all the allegations. “Rwanda is not in any way supporting any armed groups in the region,” Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told a press conference at U.N. headquarters on Monday. “Rwanda would not participate in any destabilizing act in the region.” Mushikiwabo added that allegations of Rwandan involvement in eastern Congo risked stoking the same ethnic hatred that sparked the genocide 18 years ago.

The growing scandal poses a dilemma for Western diplomats, particularly those from the U.S. and Britain, with whom Kagame has developed close ties after distancing himself from France, which supported the Hutu regime that later carried out the genocide. Rwanda is often held up as a model for Africa: self-reliant, fast-developing and prizing trade above aid. Even its actions in Congo have defenders: Faced with a dysfunctional state next door and an ineffective U.N. peacekeeping operation, some say, Rwanda has little choice but to act to protect itself. But even Rwanda’s most ardent backers will find it difficult to square those high-minded aims with sending weapons to army mutineers led by a man wanted for war crimes. Expect some embarrassed silences in Washington and London.

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