Today at Yale, Rwandan President Paul Kagame will deliver the prestigious Coca-Cola World Fund Lecture, in which he is being celebrated in part for his leadership in the “promotion of human rights.” By Yale’s account, Kagame is the man responsible for Rwanda’s impressive economic growth, stability and human development. And yet, the wide recognition and extensive documentation of Kagame’s abysmal human rights record tells a different story.
Yale’s MacMillan Center has invited various high-profile figures to deliver the lecture previously, but Kagame’s invitation stands out for its blazon disregard for human rights. The lecture is part of the Coca-Cola World Fund, established in 1992 to “support intersecting endeavors among specialists in international relations, international law and the management of international enterprises and organizations.” Previous speakers have included heads of state, U.N. officials, journalists and academics such as Samantha Power ’92, Nicholas Kristof, Mary Robinson and Tom Friedman.
In the weeks building up to Rwanda’s last election in 2010, Kagame stifled political dissent and cemented his control over the country. Many of Kagame’s political opponents came under attack. In July, the vice president of Rwanda’s Democratic Green Party, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, was found dead with “his head almost completely severed.” One month earlier, General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former ally of Kagame who had gone into exile in South Africa, was shot. To date, Nyamwasa has survived four assassination attempts. Investigating assassinations in Rwanda can also be a life-threatening endeavor. Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist researching the shooting of Nyamwasa, was found dead shortly after he implicated Rwandan officials in the failed assassination attempt.
Assassination attempts aren’t the only human rights violations in Rwanda. Freedom House has documented the rigid restrictions of rights over the freedoms of speech and press. Amnesty International has outlined the repressive environment for human rights defenders and members of the political opposition. A U.N. report noted the Rwandan government’s “prevailing hostility toward peaceful initiatives by its critics and the existence of a legal framework that silences dissent.”
Freedom of the press in Rwanda has deteriorated over Kagame’s presidency. In October 2014, the BBC broadcast a documentary entitled “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” which questioned in part Kagame’s official depiction of the 1994 genocide. The documentary implicated him in ballot-box stuffing, assassination attempts of former allies and repressing free speech.
Shortly after the documentary was broadcast, the Rwandan government created a committee to investigate. The committee concluded that the BBC had violated Rwandan law relating to genocide denial and incited hatred and divisionism. BBC Kinyarwanda service has since been suspended indefinitely.
Those in Rwanda who publicly critique Kagame and question the official line can expect to spend many years behind bars. One of those individuals is Victoire Ingabire. After spending most of her life living in the Netherlands, Ingabire returned to Rwanda in 2010 to stand against Kagame in the election. Ingabire was a leading critic of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front. Upon questioning the lack of memorials for the Hutus who died in the genocide, Ingabire was given an eight-year sentence for “denying the genocide.” In 2013, Ingabire’s sentence was extended. She remains imprisoned.
Kagame is unapologetic about his firm hand in punishment. In 2014, Colonel Patrick Karegeya, former chief of external intelligence who was also living in exile, was found dead in his hotel room. Not long after the Karagaya was strangled to death, Kagame publicly said: “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it”
Two years ago, I sat in a Yale graduate seminar in which the professor selected Rwanda as a case study for a “successful transition.” The professor cited Rwanda’s impressive annual seven percent GDP growth, improvements to child mortality and life expectancy. When a handful of students raised concerns about human rights abuses, we were told to “focus on the development indicators.” Similar to Yale’s description of Kagame, the syllabus had whitewashed any mention of human rights abuses. Our critiques were dismissed and stifled. Kagame’s visit to Yale is a clear message that human rights abuses can be brushed aside whilst growth indicators improve and GDP soars.
In honoring Kagame’s leadership in the “promotion of human rights,” Yale is warping the truth and legitimizing his leadership.
Louisa Brown is a Community Fellow at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .