US Senate committee calls for 'more effective American policy' on Rwanda

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Paul Kagame.
Paul Kagame.
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  • The US Senate committee says it's concerned about Rwanda's continuous disregard for democracy and human rights.
  • It says the US must put in place a more effective policy and speak with one voice on Rwanda.
  • President Joe Biden last week passed an executive order codifying a 2020 law dealing with Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.

Due to a legacy of human rights violations back home and political assassinations abroad, one of them in South Africa in 2014, the United States Senate committee on foreign relations has called for a "more effective US policy" on Rwanda.

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony John Blinken, New Jersey senator and chairperson of the committee on foreign relations Robert Menendez said he was "concerned about the Rwandan government's continuing disregard for democracy and human rights".

In the letter, Menendez raised questions about the "implausible" 2017 near-world record presidential victory of Paul Kagame, where he received 99% of the vote.

The world record belongs to Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein who in 2002 received 100% of the vote in a referendum for the continuation of his presidency.

Then there is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who got a 100% in 2014. 

READ | Ex-top Rwanda official jailed for 20 years for role in bloody 1994 genocide

Menendez said Kagame's controversial victory was because of the forced disappearance and alleged killing of opposition figures, and the muzzling of independent media and civil society.

This condemnation, if taken as reflecting US government policy, would be an isolated act from western countries.

Kagame enjoys strong support from European states, mainly the United Kingdom, with which he signed the controversial refugee deal that will see asylum seekers in the UK sent to Rwanda.

Last month, Kagame took up chairmanship of the Commonwealth, a group of countries of 56 member states, the vast majority of which are former territories of the British Empire. Hence, his relations with the UK and other Commonwealth countries are generally cordial.

But for the US, the main problem they have with Kagame is the arrest of the 67-year-old Paul Rusesabagina, an American citizen born in Rwanda.

Rusesabagina is the hero who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, which was based on his heroic work as a hotel manager during the 100-day genocide in 1994.

He protected some 1 200 people from the violence after they sought shelter at the hotel. But after the genocide, he emerged as a critic of Kagame, and for that, in 2020 he was arrested on arrival from Dubai, after what he described as a kidnapping by Rwandan authorities. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for acts of terrorism.

Menendez said: "Paul Rusesabagina, a US lawful permanent resident, was among those targeted by Rwanda while living in the US."

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives voted to pass a resolution calling for Rusesabagina's release.

Menendez added that, despite glaring human rights violations, the US continued to maintain diplomatic ties with Rwanda, and urged that to come to an end.

READ | UK vows to send migrants to Rwanda despite legal challenges

"This contradiction is deeply problematic and emblematic of a policy towards Rwanda that is increasingly out of step with US interests and values," he said.

American sanctions on Rwanda are a possibility, since on Tuesday last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order codifying a 2020 law dealing with Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.

For his part, Kagame has in the past said the US cannot dictate what democracy meant to Rwanda, and defended the arrest of Rusesabagina despite international pressure to release him.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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