By Spy Uganda Correspondent
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he would place a hold on U.S. security assistance to Rwanda in Congress over concerns about the Rwandan government’s human rights record and role in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The militia known as M23 has killed dozens of civilians in shootings and indiscriminate artillery shelling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since mid-June, human-rights groups say. More than 160,000 people have fled their homes because of the attacks.
The decision to suspend security assistance, disclosed by U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez in a letter leaked to the media this weekend, is a clear signal of growing concern from Rwanda’s biggest bilateral donor, which provided US$147-million to the country last year.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has ruled the country since 1994, has traditionally enjoyed strong support from Western governments. Less than a month ago, Commonwealth leaders – including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – gathered in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, for a summit that provided a valuable diplomatic boost for Mr. Kagame.
Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Kagame met on June 26 at the end of the summit, and the two leaders “emphasized their shared commitment” to “free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity,” according to a statement from Mr. Trudeau’s office.
But even as they issued this statement, Rwanda was allegedly providing military support to M23 in its rampage across the border in eastern Congo. While the Kagame government has denied it, many independent analysts have concluded that Rwanda does support M23.
A group of United Nations experts said in a report last month that it had “aerial footage and photographic evidence” of men in Rwandan military uniforms at M23 camps in eastern Congo.
Jason Stearns, a Congo expert at Simon Fraser University, said the Western leaders at the Commonwealth summit did not express any concern about M23′s activities across the border. Instead they were “looking away from suffering,” he wrote in a commentary this month.
“Rwanda has seen meddling in its neighbor as a core national interest, while foreign donors have looked the other way,” Mr. Stearns said.
Washington, however, is beginning to lose patience with the M23 issue. Senator Menendez, in his letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 20, accused Rwanda of fomenting “rebellion and violence” in eastern Congo by using a “proxy militia” to kill Congolese civilians and UN peacekeepers. This is the second time in a decade that Rwanda has used M23 to destabilize its neighbour, he said.
He also cited many other human rights violations by the Kagame government, including attacks on exiled Rwandan dissidents and the jailing or killing of dozens of journalists, activists and opposition politicians. He noted that the U.S. government has concluded that Rwanda has wrongfully detained Paul Rusesabagina, the former hotel manager who was lauded in the film Hotel Rwanda for rescuing hundreds of people from the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Senator Menendez said he will carefully review all U.S. aid to Rwanda and will halt all security assistance, including several million dollars in funding for Rwandan troops in UN peacekeeping missions. Since his committee’s approval is required for all U.S. foreign aid, his decision will effectively freeze U.S. military and security aid to Rwanda.
It is unclear whether other Western governments might follow the United States in reconsidering their aid to Rwanda.
The British government, meanwhile, says it is still committed to providing about $200-million in aid to the Rwandan government in exchange for its agreement to accept thousands of asylum-seekers from Britain. But documents disclosed in court last week showed that a British diplomat had warned internally that migrants sent to Rwanda could be forced to join the military and fight in neighbouring countries.
While there are dozens of militias and rebel groups in eastern Congo, there is evidence that M23 is one of the best-financed and most heavily armed. Bintou Keita, head of the UN mission in Congo, told the Security Council last month that M23 is behaving increasingly like a conventional army, with sophisticated firepower and equipment.
Human Rights Watch, in a report on July 14, said M23 is today using the same “brutal tactics” that it used a decade ago when it captured the city of Goma in eastern Congo. The militia committed war crimes in 2012 but its leaders were shielded by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and were never held accountable, it said.
“As in the past, competition over eastern Congo’s lucrative resources and land may have played a role in the group’s resurgence and the role of Rwanda is supporting the group,” the report said.