Following their visit earlier this month to Africa’s Great Lakes region, which includes the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, members of the United Nations Security Council met to consider what they learned during their visit. They also heard reports from two high level appointees of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged more progress in regional peace efforts in the wake of an apparent deadlock on certain key issues in the so-called Kampala talks between the DRC government and the armed M23 rebel group fighting against the government.
One of the Security Council members reporting on the Africa visit was the United States. The U.S. report focused on the Rwanda portion of the trip, a country whose suffering during the 1994 genocide helped inspire U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to write movingly about the horrors of that colossal crime against humanity and to speak out against the indifference of the United States and the international community as the genocide unfolded. Among her accomplishments before assuming her current position in the Obama administration, she was the author of A Problem from Hell, a book on America’s responses to the major genocides of the 20th century, including the Rwandan genocide, for which Power won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. During an interview in December of 2003, she said that even the mildest of measures to help stop the genocide “would have required high-level ownership of the genocide and of the U.S. response. It would have required somebody above a kind of State Department assistant secretary level, preferably somebody of a Cabinet-level post, who simply made it their business to put the issue in front of the president, to put the issue and even the moral stakes in front of his or her colleagues in Cabinet-level meetings, in principals’ committee meetings.”
A decade later, Samantha Power became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now with a Cabinet-level post and a global platform to make sure that we do not let the people of Rwanda down again. What has she done to take “high-level ownership” of this moral imperative in the face of a decision by the Obama administration to cut off military aid to Rwanda that increases its risks of instability?
After Ambassador Power and the other Security Council delegates toured the children’s wing of the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, the site where some 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide lie buried, she could barely hold back her tears. Here is what she said in front of the Security Council’s Rwandan hosts:
“We just want to express our thanks to the people of Rwanda for opening their hearts, sharing their photos, their stories of their family members. Nobody who comes to this memorial site is ever the same when they leave. People who come through this site dedicate themselves with new passion and new commitment to the Rwandan people, to the cause of reconciliation and peace in the region, and to the broader cause of preventing genocide forevermore.”
One would think that Ambassador Power would have wanted to address the Security Council herself about her personal experience amongst the Rwandan people whom she had felt were abandoned nearly twenty years ago by the U.S. government and the UN system. But she left that awkward task up to her deputy Jeffrey De Laurentis. She entered the Security Council chamber well after De Laurentis had concluded his remarks. Hours later she tweeted tidbits from his speech and a link to a video of her own remarks at the genocide memorial site.
Ambassador Power’s deputy mentioned the Security Council’s tour of the children’s wing of the Gisozi Genocide Memorial at which Ambassador Power had spoken. He described the memorial as “a permanent warning for the world community.” He said that the “warning has special meaning for our Council, which failed dismally in responding to the slaughter of nineteen years ago.”
De Laurentis praised the “relatively calm and stable environment in Rwanda” today, but said that “the waves created by the genocide continue to disrupt and claim lives.” In addition to the M23 rebel group, he mentioned the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which is a dangerous Hutu rebel group infiltrating Rwanda from bases in the east of the of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The FDLR includes among its number the original members of the Interahamwe that carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He noted that during the Security Council members’ visit to Rwanda, they met with former FDLR combatants who have voluntarily returned and, with the help of the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the Rwandan government, were trying to reintegrate into society.
“In many cases, the FDLR has threatened to retaliate against them and members of their families,” De Laurentis added. “We were pleased to hear of the key role that MONUSCO continues to play in collaboration with Rwandan authorities to ensure that these former fighters can successfully resume their lives.”
In short, Ambassador Power promised a “new commitment to the Rwandan people” on the very site where 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide were buried, while her deputy told the Security Council that the United States was pleased with the support that Rwandan authorities were giving to help former fighters against the current regime “successfully resume their lives.” And he pointed to the “relatively calm and stable environment” that exists in Rwanda today.
Reconciliation and stability should be held up as model behavior for all of Africa to emulate. But not in Obama Land. Instead of rewarding the Rwandans for trying to move on with their lives past the devastation wrought by the 1994 genocide and build a more peaceful, stable society, the Obama administration has done the opposite. It decided to punish Rwanda for allegedly providing help to the M23 rebels fighting in the DRC who, among other things, are using child soldiers. Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced that the United States intended to cut off International Military Education and Training funds for Rwanda, which supports the training of foreign militaries. Rwanda will also not receive U.S. Foreign Military Financing, which provides money for U.S. army services and arms.
When I asked Rwanda’s UN Ambassador Eugène-Richard Gasana to comment on the aid cut-off by the U.S. government, he diplomatically replied that “It’s their money. They can use their money as they want.” However, he noted that nobody ever bothered to discuss the Obama administration’s allegations directly with Rwandan authorities to learn if they were true.
The fact is that a United Nations report issued last June concluded that any continuing Rwandan assistance to M23 was “limited,” and noted Rwanda’s cooperation in helping to accomplish the smooth surrender of a key M23 leader to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Obama administration has a habit of making bad foreign policy decisions based on incomplete facts and fallacious assumptions. Throwing allies under the bus, such as the Obama administration has done in Egypt, has become its modus operandi. Its destructive decision to apply punitive measures against its African ally Rwanda simply continues this counter-productive pattern.
In cutting off military assistance to Rwanda, the Obama administration is weakening Rwanda’s ability to repel FDLR assaults on targets inside Rwanda launched from nearby bases in the DRC, with some assistance from the DRC army whose troops the United States has helped to train. The UN report described previous attacks by FDLR rebels who managed to infiltrate inside Rwanda. There have also reportedly been over 34 bomb attacks resulting in shells landing on Rwandan soil since November 2012. Just like nineteen years ago, the United States government and the international community has neglected this situation and kept a blind eye, while focusing virtually all of its attention on the M23 rebel forces.
Rwanda remains vulnerable to the same murderers who participated in the 1994 genocide and their successors. The United States owes Rwanda the benefit of the doubt and must remain a reliable ally, not a fair weather friend who is willing to cut off vital assistance on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations.
Samantha Power has the opportunity to make the Obama administration’s wrong-headed decision an issue of conscience for her to directly address with her superiors, including the president himself if necessary. Her talk at the Rwandan genocide memorial of a “new commitment to the Rwandan people” will just be empty rhetoric if this decision is not reversed. Does Ambassador Power agree with the decision, or is she too afraid to voice her concerns? Is she trying to push for a change of policy in private? If so, is she willing to resign her post if she is not successful and go public?
In her 2003 interview, Samantha Power said that standing up for what was right in Rwanda “would have required personal risk, putting your career on the line.” Is Ambassador Power willing to put her own career on the line for the sake of the Rwandan people today?
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