Rwanda: why UNHCR is wrong about Cessation

The UN Refugee Agency must not be the facilitator of a permissive attitude towards continued corruption and the absence of democracy in Rwanda. By calling on refugees who fled before 1998 to return home to the threat of persecution it risks legitimising Kagame’s autocratic regime.

On the 30th June 2013, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR is recommending that states around the world invoke the Cessation Clause for refugees who fled events occurring in Rwanda between 1959 and 1998. If states follow UNHCR’s recommendation, the international protection of those who fled Rwanda during this period will cease to exist.

According to principles set out in the 1951 Convention, refugee status is an essentially temporary condition which should allow for the return of refugees should ‘fundamental, positive and durable’ changes occur in their country of origin. These changes should render the well-founded fear of persecution which led to their flight no longer present. UNHCR’s desire to invoke the Cessation Clause only for those who fled before 1998 creates an evident contradiction. In stating that those who have fled after this date may still have a well-founded fear of persecution, UNHCR suggests that fundamental, positive and durable changes have not really taken place in Rwanda.

Further contradictions in UNHCR’s recommendation are evident in the internal division among UNHCR offices on the question of Cessation for Rwandan refugees, as discussed previously on openDemocracy by Barbara Harrell-Bond. Whilst UNHCR Geneva recommends the invocation of the Cessation Clause, its own office in Belgium has advised European governments that Rwanda is not a safe country.

Fundamentally divided?

UNHCR’s suggestion that the Cessation Clause should be revoked for those fleeing events before 1998 would imply that those who faced persecution or discrimination during this period are no longer at risk. Evidence to the contrary is widespread. Many refugees have spoken of their experience of attempting to return to Rwanda, only to find themselves persecuted, marginalised and discriminated against once again by the Rwandan ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Mr Karegeya, Kagame’s former head of intelligence in Rwanda who is now in exile, knew full well that his life would be in danger as soon as he defected. He had witnessed firsthand the murder of many who had gone into exile, which, he stated, happened on direct orders from President Kagame. Mr Karegeya told The Times newspaper that President Kagame is ‘a serial killer who does not believe in debate, he believes in eliminating all opponents’. This suggests that Kagame’s government is not the face of a stable democracy but the mask of an autocratic regime.

Many of those who fled Rwanda before 1998 did so because of fears brought about by political instability and by ethnic division. Mr Karegeya learnt of plans to kill him from fellow Rwandans who had been recruited to do the deed. His case highlights the division that remains between Rwandans and is proof that the basis for the well-founded fear of persecution that caused so many Rwandans to flee before 1998 is still in existence. A Rwandan refugee, who asked to remain nameless, currently living in Mozambique stated that ‘wherever three Rwandese are gathered, one is stupid and naive, one is a criminal and the last one is a spy - or at least that is how we perceive each other’. She takes issue with UNHCR’s desire to reunite Rwandans when they ‘don’t even trust their own shadows’ and when the RPF exploits this mistrust, employing blackmail and persuading individuals to kill their own friends

Fundamentally undemocratic?

There is little evidence to suggest that Rwanda is now a truly democratic country. On the contrary, President Kagame’s regime continues to oppress political opposition and to threaten the people of Rwanda, both at home and abroad. Earlier this year Scotland Yard warned two Rwandan exiles living in the UK that the ‘the Rwandan government poses an imminent threat to your life’. UNHCR is wrong to think that sending refugees back is appropriate in these conditions.

A refugee has, by their very nature, criticised the country that they fled and the Rwandan government has a proven record of hostility to criticism. Sending back those who once feared persecution in Rwanda whilst true fundamental changes have not occurred would put great numbers at risk.

Further questions to the true democracy for the Rwandan RPF are demonstrated through claims by two of President Kagame’s former bodyguards that members of the Republic Guard were involved in stuffing hundreds of ballot boxes two days before the election in 2003. More recent examples include the difficulty for opposition parties to register their desire to stand in elections, as experienced by the Democratic Green party before the 2010 elections. Before a party can stand, it must first convene. But on the five occasions the Democratic Party tried to convene, members were arrested and harassed by RPF supporters. 

Another opposition party, the United Democratic Forces (UDF) has faced a difficult fight to be recognised. Their leader, Victoire Ingabire, returned from exile in 2010 to lead the party. She was quickly imprisoned and is now facing a life sentence for ‘genocide ideology’, a vague concept used by the RPF to legitimise the imprisonment of often innocent detainees.  Both the FDU and the Democratic Green Party were prevented from registering for the 2010 elections by local authorities. Thus the RPF faced no meaningful challenge in the 2010 elections, whilst political opponents remain persecuted and imprisoned. 

In the 2010 election the RPF won such a huge majority of the vote - 96% amongst the diasporas and 93% on average -  that it is difficult not to suspect foul play. The Rwandan people are not able to voice their true democratic rights because of a fear of the consequences of opposition. How can UNHCR pretend that Rwanda is an example of a country where fundamental, positive and durable changes have taken place? Instead of legitimising the actions of Kagame’s corrupt government by branding the country as safe, UNHCR should be pressuring Rwanda to make the real changes that would permit the proper invocation of the Cessation Clause.

In an interview with The Times, former bodyguard Joel Mutabazi told of how in 2010 he had been accused of being a Hutu, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. He spent 17 months shackled and handcuffed, told by prison officers authorised by President Kagame’s regime that ‘there is no Human Rights Watch, no advocates. We can do what we want’. This was just two years ago.  

Amnesty International says it has documented 45 similar cases, warning that such abuses have only been possible because ‘perpetrators expected their actions to go unpunished’. In fact, the Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama admitted that there had been a series of illegal detentions in 2010 but accredited this to the overzealousness of the security forces, stating that the ‘state would never condone torture’. Yet the same security forces still remain in their positions and claims of torture and persecution can still be heard from Rwandans in exile around the world.

International apathy and economic assistance

This belief that terrible human rights abuses and continued governmental persecution can go unpunished is well-founded. In fact, instead of condemning such behaviour, the international community at large has continued to passively justify human rights violations through funding the Rwandan government. 

Rwanda has experienced significant economic growth since the genocide in 1994 and much of this growth is thanks, at least in part, to the support and assistance of foreign donors. This growth has brought some positive changes to the country, including the construction of new buildings in the capital, Kigali. As one refugee pointed out, however, the presence of beautiful buildings does not constitute profound changes in a country. Impressive government buildings should not detract from the corruption that the walls hide from prying eyes. 

In a recent letter to the World Bank, Human Rights Watch raised questions about the provision of huge amounts of aid to Rwanda in light of ‘detailed evidence of human rights abuses by the Rwandan government and the Rwandan military’s support for armed groups in the DRC’. Human Rights Watch expressed its concern that the World Bank remains one of the most significant donors in Rwanda, with US $300 million in active projects in March 2012 and a further US $88 million in trust Funds in the country. Yet questions still remain about how this money is being spent.

Last year the UK government boasted that it gave more bilateral aid to Rwanda than any other European country, with its £60 million of aid set to increase to £90 million in 2014/2015. The Conservative government contend that is has used Rwanda as an example of how development aid should be used in the modern world, to allow a state to modernise through investment, so that they can strive to be independent of aid. President Kagame was even the guest of honour at the Conservative Party Conference just 5 years ago. All the while, Conservative party members have cultivated close friendships with Mr Kagame. In his last act as International Development Minister, the now Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell reinstated millions of pounds of development aid to Rwanda. He is said to have visited Rwanda at least 8 times in the last 6 years and famously enjoys a particularly intimate relationship with Kagame. Mr Mitchell has been criticised for the closeness of their relationship as he has demonstrated ‘monumental naivety by falling for the African’s ingratiating personal charm offensive’. 

Conversely, the US, the Netherlands and Sweden have recently suspended their aid to Rwanda following allegations that the government was assisting rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo to carry out a series of human rights abuses. Even the British government has announced plans to probe the re-instalment of aid to Rwanda. If nation states are beginning to take note of the ongoing support for human rights abuses within Rwanda, surely UNHCR should do the same. 

Nonetheless, the international community on the whole remains passive and permissive in its interactions with Rwanda. There is evidence to suggest that money from the World Bank has gone into arming conflict, and corruption is rife as the Rwandan government demonstrates very little accountability for the expenditure of its funds. Continued support from the World Bank and many national governments should not be viewed as evidence of fundamental change in Rwanda, but rather of the RPF’s ability to control opinion and of the global community’s inability or unwillingness to perceive the situation for what it is. Invoking the Cessation Clause would represent yet another example of the international community overlooking its obligation to the people of Rwanda, instead preferring to turn a blind eye to the problems which remain within the country.  

The RPF’s economic and asset monopoly 

58% of the Rwandan budget comes from Rwanda’s top five international donors. This means that the Rwandan government should be held to account for at least 58% of its expenditure, which should be allocated according to proper procurement procedures. Yet the RPF continually manages to avoid accountability for this money, as they use it to enable key party members to amass wealth, power and influence. According to official figures, 77% of the population live below the poverty line, all the while members of the RPF and their families become richer and more influential.

The RPF have created an un-impenetrable shield under which it controls wealth and assets under the umbrella of Crystal Ventures and Invest Group. These two structures administer millions of pounds annually and are both controlled by and accountable only to the RPF. Under the cover of these organisations, family members of those loyal to President Kagame benefit from investment whilst other entrepreneurs miss out on the chance to tender for contracts. 

A former procurement officer in the President’s office, who is now an asylum seeker having escaped last year, gives numerous examples of this. In one such example he told of a Belgian man wishing to apply for the tender of US $300,000 for the Cleaning and Garden Maintenance of Urugwiro, Kiyovu and the VIP lounge at the Kanombe International airport. He was told before he could bid for tender that he must first visit the site. The Belgian is still awaiting permission to visit, whilst the tender has been given to a relative of the Ministry of Defence Reserve Force’s Chief of Staff, General Fred Ibingira.

The RPF has a monopoly of control over assets of every kind in Rwanda - from plastic chairs to beer, from government finance to coffee. There is an obvious point to be made about the way in which the RPF’s management of finance gives the party an unfair political advantage, as it can finance propaganda and campaigns almost with no limit. Indeed, according to sources, half of the RFP’s $2.4 million campaign costs for the 2010 elections came from companies controlled by Crystal Ventures.

Crystal Ventures controls assets worth more than US$500 million annually and with its 7,000 staff it is the country’s second biggest employer, after the state. The monopoly of this government-controlled organisation goes against basic principles of democracy and permits mismanagement of public funds and large scale corruption.

The Chairman of the Board of Crystal Ventures, Professor Nshuti Manasseh, justifies the governmental control of the investment branch by stating that Rwanda does not want to remain dependent on international development aid but rather to be able to fund its own projects and manage its own wealth. Whilst this is in theory a positive aim, the means are questionable. Crystal Ventures amassed its wealth through donations from Tutsi diasporas, demonstrating evident problems of ethnic divides that still remain embedded in political and economic process in Rwanda.

Political instability and ethnic divides which led to the genocide in 1994 have provided the grounds for the flight of many Rwandans since. Unfortunately Rwanda remains a hugely divided society, whilst freedom of expression remains an ideal rather than a reality. Reports suggest that President Kagame is becoming increasingly autocratic. It is thus impossible for UNHCR to argue that fundamental, durable and positive changes have occurred in Rwanda, invalidating their call for the invocation of the Cessation Clause.

By only invoking the Cessation Clause for a certain period UNHCR suggests that it does not truly believe Rwanda has changed. UNHCR should retract its recommendation that states invoke the Cessation Clause, instead recognising its responsibility to those who still fear persecution from Rwanda.