The roughly 300 people gathered in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall Tuesday afternoon to see Rwandan President Paul Kagame brought smartphones to document the event, notepads to jot down his remarks — and, some of them, sheets of paper with pre-written questions to challenge Kagame’s record on human rights in a country still dealing with the legacy of its 1994 genocide.
The dozens of attendees who held the papers in question had received them at a teach-in just prior to Kagame’s speech. The teach-in was organized by a group of Yale Law School students and faculty opposed to Yale’s selection of Kagame as the speaker for its annual Coca-Cola World Fund Lecture. Previous speakers have included U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power ’92, Moroccan Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah and Japanese academic and former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, and teach-in organizers said the inclusion of Kagame in such a prestigious group represents Yale’s unacceptable endorsement and legitimization of a leader whom various U.N. reports have accused of war crimes.
Unless the University publicly acknowledges Kagame’s record in the form of a public statement, the event provides a dangerously one-sided misrepresentation of his leadership, organizers said.
“Perhaps what worries me about this the most is that the Rwandan press picked this up and called him a guest of honor,” Elizabeth Leiserson LAW ’17, one of the teach-in’s organizers, said. “What Yale does sends a message to the rest of the world, and it’s very important for us to remember that people hear this and that it matters in the lives of others, here and in Rwanda.”
Roughly 70 people attended the teach-in, which was held on the lawn in front of SSS. The teach-in featured its own series of speakers who spoke strongly about the alleged human rights abuses committed by Kagame’s regime, while members of the Rwandan security team circled the area.
Kagame, who has been in power since 1994 but was not formally elected until 2000, has repeatedly denied all allegations leveled against him.
In addition to Kagame’s human rights record, teach-in attendees also took issue with the timing of the University’s announcement of his invitation. Yale announced that Kagame would be coming to campus only seven days before the event — a move critics said limited the scope of their protest.
Still, backlash materialized fairly quickly, in the form of two columns in the News denouncing Kagame’s selection, an online open letter and the teach-in itself.
The open letter, which was addressed to University President Peter Salovey and Director of the MacMillan Center Ian Shapiro GRD ’83 LAW ’87, received over 200 signatures in just a few days. The letter’s writers recognized Kagame’s role in ending the 1994 Rwandan genocide but also highlighted his harassment and detainment of journalists and civil society members, the heightened restrictions on freedom of expression and association in Rwanda and his support for “murderous” rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that are accused of crimes against humanity and mass rape.
Yale Law School professor James Silk LAW ’89, one of the letter’s original signatories and director of the Law School’s Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, said one of the most concerning aspects with the University’s invitation of Kagame was the lack of consultation with relevant faculty.
“Sometimes there seems to be a disconnect between Yale’s relationship with the world and Yale’s academic work relating to those same parts of the world,” he said.
When asked how Kagame was selected as this year’s speaker, George Joseph, deputy director of the MacMillan Center, said the center asks faculty for a potential list of guests every year.
“Within the last two or three years, we have especially focused on the [Yale] Africa Initiative … With the case of Paul Kagame, his name is one that has been mentioned by faculty and students for some time,” Joseph said. “He happened to be in the U.N. for the General Assembly meeting and he indicated that he was able to come speak at Yale.”
David Simon, director of the Yale Genocide Studies Program and moderator of the open question-and-answer session with Kagame, did not openly support or denounce Kagame as a choice for speaker.
“I believe in the idea of engagement, but the way things were phrased or framed certainly matters,” Simon said. “As the people who organized the petition said, I believe it’s important to have the opportunity to listen and confront someone who’s controversial.”
The narrative put forth by the signers of the open letter and organizers of the teach-in paints a very different picture than the short biography of Kagame presented by the MacMillan Center. The center’s invitation to the talk emphasized the economic transformation, good governance and even promotion of human rights that has come about in Rwanda due to Kagame’s leadership. There was no mention of his alleged legacy of human rights abuses.
During his roughly 20-minute remarks, which were followed by a question-and-answer session, Kagame focused mostly on Rwanda’s legitimacy, stability and national interests in relation to other nations. In a slow, measured voice, he delivered a speech strongly centered around the role of Rwanda in the world today, focusing on what he described as the tenuous relationship between Western-style democracy and stability, and briefly touching on the criticisms he has received during his time as president. Although his statements occasionally drew laughter from the crowd, several of his points were also met with firm shakes of the head in disagreement.
“Rwandans in the developing world are seeking to pursue the same ends, but in our own ways,” Kagame said, commenting on what he called the exceptionalism of the developed word.
He continued to speak on the different problems Rwanda has to deal with as a small nation.
“The U.S. is huge. In Rwanda, we have the advantage that the relationships between citizens and leaders can unfold in a more direct and face-to-face manner,” he said.
Several questions posed during the question-and-answer portion predictably focused on the human rights offenses said to be committed by Kagame’s regime.
Attendees interviewed after the event expressed mostly positive feedback, although they acknowledged that Kagame had not sufficiently addressed questions about his human rights legacy.
“President Kagame often pushes back against human rights questions by saying, ‘If you are not Rwandan, if you are not from my country or continent, then what do you know about human rights in an African context?’” Sameer Jaywant LAW ’18 said. “However, accepting the Rwandan context, when is Kagame going to take a Rwandan state into an era that doesn’t use the genocide as an albatross around the neck of the state to oppress its civilians?”
“I really liked that he brought up the fact that there is a Western influence when we assess questions of human rights,” Julia Tofan ’20 said. “He definitely evaded questions, though, and did not answer fully questions about his human rights abuses.”
Samuel Maritim GRD ’19, who is from Kenya, said he liked Kagame’s take on Western exceptionalism.
“I liked his responses particularly when he talks about foreigners creating problems that need to be fixed when those problems may not be the most pressing ones … For the most part, I’m satisfied,” he said.
Established in 1992, the Coca-Cola World Fund at Yale contributes to the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, supporting the endeavors of specialists in international relations, international law and international enterprises.
Joey Ye contributed reporting.