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Human Rights Watch’s Carina Tertsakian says that to describe Paul Kagame as « the sort of dictator Rwanda needs » is an insult to Rwandans who have lost their lives.

Jack Chapman’s Think Africa Press article « Are Kagame’s human rights abuses justified? »  epitomises the blinkered approach of many commentators towards Rwanda. Its principal argument is based on a fallacy: that in some contexts, human rights and economic development are antagonistic or mutually exclusive.The genocide in which more than half a million people were killed in just three months in 1994 undeniably makes Rwanda an exceptional case. The level of organisation of the massacres, the scale of the horror, the suffering and the devastation – all of these were exceptional.

What is not exceptional, however, is that Rwandans, like human beings in any other country, have fundamental rights and want to be able to enjoy them. These include the right to life – of which hundreds of thousands were robbed so brutally during the genocide – the right to freedom of expression, to liberty and security and a fair trial, and many other rights enshrined in Rwandan law and in international conventions.

Chapman’s argument deprives Rwandans of those rights. His article falls into the trap, skilfully set by the Rwandan government, of using the horror of the genocide to deflect criticism of the fact that Rwandan men and women are being denied their rights to voice their opinions, participate in the political life of their country, and go about their daily activities unhindered. Those who buy into this argument fail to see that a thriving, healthy society cannot be built on a foundation of fear – as illustrated in other repressive countries, not least in parts of North Africa and the Middle East currently experiencing dramatic upheaval.

Chapman’s article rightly sets out Rwanda’s achievements since the genocide, but jumps to some astonishing conclusions. « Human rights violations are a small price to pay for Rwanda’s remarkable progress, » it asserts. For some Rwandans, that « small price » has been their life or their liberty.  Consider Jean-Léonard Rugambage, the young journalist gunned down outside his home in the capital Kigali last year; or Bernard Ntaganda, the opposition party leader arrested just weeks before the 2010 elections, who is now serving a prison sentence simply for opposing the government in his public statements; or Abbé Emile Nsengiyumva, the priest who has spent six months in detention awaiting trial after criticising state policies on housing and family planning in his Christmas sermon. Would they, or their families, consider that this was a « small price to pay » for their country’s « remarkable progress »?

The assassination of Rugambage and the arrest of Ntaganda are just two of the flagrant incidents that took place in the run-up to the presidential elections. 2010 saw President Kagame re-elected with 93% of the vote. This election, like the previous one in 2003, was a contest only in name: Kagame’s three « rivals » all represented parties that had broadly supported the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). None of the three new opposition parties, which had openly criticised the government, was able to stand. Two were not even allowed to register as parties. The vice-president of one, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was murdered less than a month before the elections; no one has been brought to justice for this crime. Several lower-ranking opposition party members were detained and beaten by the police.

The Rwandan media was also ruthlessly targeted. In April 2010, two popular independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi – which often reported allegations of corruption and abuse – were suspended while their editors were charged with defamation. After receiving persistent threats, they fled the country for their safety. The fate of their colleague Rugambage, who stayed behind, sadly proved that they had made the right decision.

The repression has not stopped since the elections. In February 2011, two other journalists were sentenced to 17 and 7 years respectively for writing articles seen as critical of the government and the president. A court found them both guilty of endangering public order, and also found the newspaper’s editor guilty of minimising the genocide, « divisionism » and « genocide ideology » – a catch-all offence that has frequently been used to target perceived critics.

It is unclear in Chapman’s argument, and in similar ones proferred by Kagame’s allies, how jailing journalists and targeting opposition party members is necessary for economic and social development. For development to be sustainable, many development experts agree, it should be participatory and transparent.  Long-term economic and social stability relies on an empowered citizenry and a vibrant civil society.

So where is the « civil society… with a staunch Rwandan national identity » that Chapman claims is emerging in Rwanda?  With a few exceptions, the civil society organisations operating in Rwanda today are those that submit to the government’s wishes, actively promote its programmes, or stick to uncontroversial areas. Independent human rights organisations, like independent newspapers, have been dismantled one by one or been infiltrated by individuals close to the RPF. Many leading human rights activists have been forced to leave the country. Others, worn down by constant threats to their safety, have simply opted out of the struggle. A few courageous individuals – you can count them on the fingers of one hand – continue doggedly monitoring abuses, but rarely publish their findings. Official censorship has led to self-censorship throughout much of civil society.

Chapman talks of political « stability » in Rwanda – a term also favoured by donor governments. If Chapman scratched the surface, he would find that that stability is not quite what it seems. Human Rights Watch’s field research has shown that disillusion and discontent are more prevalent among the population than is widely assumed and that they cut across political, ethnic and social lines, eating into Kagame’s public support.

Indeed, some of Kagame’s harshest critics – and now the victims of his repression – are, like him, from the Tutsi ethnic group; they share his background, grew up in Uganda, speak English, and shared the ideals of the RPF in its early days. It is telling that one of Kagame’s fiercest opponents today is his former army chief-of-staff, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in South Africa last year, and whose brother, a serving military officer, was detained incommunicado for several months before being brought before a military court in January 2011. In this context, Chapman’s claim that « the whole stability of the country therefore depends on Kagame maintaining his status and so repressive political acts can be an integral part of Rwandan progress » makes little sense.

The impressive speed of Rwanda’s reconstruction and economic growth after the genocide should not blind us to the fear and intimidation that Rwandans live with from day to day. Instead of swallowing the propaganda of « economic development first, human rights later », we should put ourselves in the shoes of Rwandans today:  would we be prepared to sacrifice our right to free speech or political participation for the sake of « reasonably equitable development » or subjective « political stability »?

The Rwandan government should have the confidence to offer its citizens not only economic development but also the space and the security to speak and challenge without fear. Clean streets and the absence of plastic bags will be of little comfort to those who remain behind bars for expressing their opinions. To describe Kagame as « the sort of dictator Rwanda needs » is an insult to Rwandans who have lost their lives or their freedom under his rule.

Carina Tertsakian