11.18.08

Obama's Choice: Appease an Ally or Do the Right Thing

France abetted the Rwandan dictatorship and has now made a wrongful arrest. Obama should call them out on it.

Poor Barack Obama. How many letters will he receive from supplicants in his own country and so many others?

I’m not talking about the leaders of the G-20, who met this weekend in Washington with George W. Bush. The topic was the global economic crisis, but their complaints and worries are on one end of a spectrum that includes the jeremiads of the world’s poor and oppressed on the other -- people who’ve had all sorts of liquidity problems, and not just since the mortgage balloon burst. You’d have to summon the G-190 to hear all these complaints.

Yet some of them concern us closely. Take the stories of two countries near to my work as a doctor: Haiti and Rwanda. The short version: France is to Rwanda as the United States is to Haiti. To take the less painful (to Americans) story first, it’s pretty hard to dispute the fact that the French government was for decades the primary patron of the Rwandan dictatorship that called, in 1994, for the elimination of the Tutsi population and their Hutu "sympathizers. The majority Hutus, who controlled the government, slaughtered the minority Tutsis by the thousands. A lot is made of the close-range nature of the genocide, as if machetes were inherently dirtier implements than bombs or gas chambers; but it’s important to observe that tiny Rwanda was, in 1993, the continent’s third-largest importer of arms of every kind, trailing only Egypt and apartheid South Africa.

Obama may delight in leading a “team of rivals,” but when two allies clash, what will he do?

When it became clear that the rebel movement led by Paul Kagame, who’d been a refugee in Uganda since childhood, would oust the genocidal government and end the killing, France helped to provide cover for the government as it fled westward, along with huge numbers of exiles of all sorts, toward Zaire. No small number of French soldiers were disgusted when they understood that their government was helping the bad guys. And from Zaire, the genocidaires would try to continue their project.

In a book about the shortcomings of humanitarian aid the director of research for Doctors Without Borders includes an interesting appendix. It shows that arms dealers from all over the world continued to ship weapons to someone addressed as “Minister of Defense, Republic of Rwanda, Goma, Zaire.” (I guess their credit was still good!) Details like this one from the Rwandan genocide remind us of connections between benighted Africa and the rich world. France’s material support of the genocidaires was followed by moral support and even, in some cases, asylum. Tensions have simmered between France and Rwanda for 14 years.

What has this to do with President-elect Obama? He knows already that the ongoing disaster in the Congo is related to the events of 1994: many of the genocidaires are still active and still angling for trouble in both eastern Congo and Rwanda itself. He might not be aware that Kagame, now president of Rwanda, suspended diplomatic relations with mighty France after nine of his close associates, including former Kigali mayor Rose Kabuye, were issued arrest warrants by an elected French judge, who has since been voted out of office. Here is what Stephen Kinzer, the author of a new book about Kagame, wrote earlier this year about those arrests: “In 2006, a French judge issued arrest warrants for nine Rwandan officials, including Kabuye, linking them to the killing of Rwanda's former president, whose plane was shot down in 1994. It was an odd indictment by international standards; the judge did not consider alternative theories, did not visit Rwanda and did not conduct any investigation of his own. Yet it served the French goal of painting Kagame's government as a gang of criminals.”

“Odd indictment”? I’d put it even more strongly, as have some who’ve written long treatises on this topic. The idea of a small group of even the most highly disciplined guerrillas, encumbered by heaven knows what (or whom: Rose Kabuye was then the mother of an infant), traveling into the heart of military-controlled Kigali to shoot down a plane in full view of government troops seems more like an action-movie fantasy than a report from the field. It is far more probable that the plane was taken out by the soldiers who controlled the area, as many hardliners wanted the too-pliant dictator, who had recently signed an accord with rebel forces, out of the picture. And it’s far more likely that French military assistance was needed to launch both plane and missile.

Many of us thought, after the recent expulsion of the French ambassador, that the French government would act reasonably and even offer some sort of apology for its role in the genocide. A parliamentary inquiry was soon underway in Paris. But the “odd” arrest warrant was issued nevertheless, and when Kabuye, now Kagame’s chief of protocol, was traveling through Germany last week she found herself detained (France and Germany have an open border). Ramrod-straight and calm, she asked to be deported directly to France, as it’s there that the showdown will take place. The Germans were vaguely embarrassed, and wish this would all go away, but it now seems likely that the result will be a trial uncovering the French involvement in the lead-up and execution of the mass violence that took up to a million lives in just a few months.

Obama may delight in leading a “team of rivals,” but when two allies are going toe-to-toe, what will he do? Side with France for strategic reasons? Or acknowledge that justice should be served, whatever the consequences? Certainly, his close aide Susan Rice will know all of the details of this case, which will be on everyone’s mind in Rwanda, if not in France. Some Rwandans are spoiling to have their day in court. The Minister of Information Louise Mushikiwabo put it this way: "This is really the moment of truth with France. We have been disappointed many times by international law, but we do hope that justice is not only for the wealthy and mighty."

Next week, we’ll consider our own dirty secrets: U.S. policy towards Haiti over the past few decades. France is no competition for us in the realm of international bullying, I fear, but the new administration may be open to charting a new course for our relations with our oldest sovereign neighbor, the former French colony liberated by its slave population.

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, is Presley Professor of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Associate Chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a co-founder of Partners In Health, a non-profit organization that provides free health care and undertakes research and advocacy on behalf of the destitute sick. He is known for helping create innovative community-based approaches to treat HIV/AIDS and TB in resource-poor settings, particularly in Haiti and Rwanda.