KIGALI – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday rebuked Rwandan authorities over democracy and human rights concerns, saying the central African country may not reach its full potential without opening up political space and protecting freedoms.
“We recognize Rwanda’s incredibly difficult history of the 1994 genocide and we know the ongoing legacy of that genocide but the criminalization of some people ... in politics, harassment of those who express opposition views to the current government, we believe (that) undermines total peace and stability and success which has been extraordinary in the case of Rwanda," said Blinken at a press briefing. He was speaking in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, the last stop on his three-nation tour of Africa.
Earlier Blinken toured a memorial for victims of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, saying he was “moved by this memorial and inspired by the resilience of the survivors and the remarkable progress of this country."
Blinken laid a wreath at the mass graves honoring the more than 800,000 victims of the genocide perpetrated by Hutu extremists against the Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus.
“My family experienced the horrors of holocaust and I appreciate the importance of memorializing such tragic events," Blinken wrote in a guest book at the memorial. "The United States strongly supports Rwanda’s continued efforts towards renewal and national reconciliation.”
One of Blinken's aims in Rwanda is to engage officials regarding the case of Paul Rusesabagina, a U.S. permanent resident whose conviction on terror charges and incarceration has drawn attention to what some say is the Rwandan government's harsh treatment of its critics at home and abroad.
Rusesabagina is the hero of the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” which dramatized his efforts as a hotel manager to shelter hundreds of Tutsis during the genocide. The U.S. asserts that Rusesabagina, a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, is wrongfully jailed in Rwanda.
“We have been clear about our position with the trial of Paul Rusesabagina. We still have conviction that the trial wasn’t fair," Blinken said. "I discussed this with President Paul Kagame but I won’t go into specifics of our discussion, but will continue to engage and also follow up with the family."
Many activists believe only diplomatic intervention from Washington can possibly help Rusesabagina, 68, who has suffered poor health in recent years, according to his family. He was sentenced to 25 years last September. His conviction came more than a year after he disappeared during a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and appeared days later in Rwanda in handcuffs, accused of supporting the armed wing of his opposition group.
Blinken, who visited South Africa and also went to Congo earlier in the week, comes to Rwanda at a particularly difficult time for Africa’s Great Lakes region, with the small central African nation at odds with vast neighbor Congo over allegations that both governments support rebels opposed to each other.
Blinken said he told Kagame that the recent U.N. report accusing Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels is “credible.”
Rwandan authorities deny those charges and have rejected the report by U.N. experts as a move “to distract from real issues.”
Rwandan authorities in turn accuse Congo of giving refuge to ethnic Hutu fighters who played roles in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide that killed ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. There have long been tensions between the countries. In the late 1990s, Rwanda twice sent its forces deep into Congo, joining forces with rebel leader Laurent Kabila to depose the country’s longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
After his meetings with the leaders of Rwanda and Congo this week, Blinken said he believes both are committed to peace talks and he said the U.S. will support African-led efforts to end the fighting.
“My message to both presidents of Congo and Rwanda this week has been the same. Any support of any armed group in eastern (Congo) endangers local communities and regional stability and every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others," he said.
A meeting between Kagame and Tshisekedi in Angola on July 6 produced a statement calling for a return to normal diplomatic relations, a cessation of hostilities and the “immediate and unconditional withdrawal” of the M23 from its positions in eastern Congo.
But M23, which comprises mostly ethnic Tutsis from Congo, continues to hold its positions near the border with Uganda, keeping the spotlight on Rwanda.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a letter to Blinken last month called for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Rwanda and noted his concern that Washington’s support for Rwanda, widely described by human rights groups as authoritarian and repressive, is not in line with U.S. values.