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The indelible stain on Rwanda

For several years any thought of Rwanda immediately invoked memories of the scenes of the brutal massacre of nearly 800,000 people in the space of 100 days.

Cognisant of the imprint which the genocide has left on the country, Rwanda’s President Kagame fought tirelessly to remove that stain from his country in becoming one of Africa’s most prolific statesmen.

Paul Kagame has sought to create strong allies with other world leaders and links with global philanthropists – setting out to show that he is regarded as a respectable politician who is equipped and capable of leading a country out of and away from genocide.

According to today’s New York Times, the President uses Twitter and has lunched at Google. So: a man of the people, a personable politician then it would seem.

Commentators have in recent weeks attributed the ‘progress’ within Rwanda to the President’s leadership skills. Richard Grant’s extensive piece in The Telegraph reminded us that Rwanda is the only country in the world to have a majority of women in Parliament, and that the country has some of the cleanest streets with a ban on plastic bags and city streets swept every morning.

The death penalty has been abolished in the country and the government appears to have made every effort to consign the painful history of genocide to the past and to keep it there.  In fact he’s taken this too far as public references to the genocide are penalised as ‘genocide ideology’ – a troublingly heavy-handed measure.

Naturally enough in recent years, Mr Kagame has sought to paint a rosier picture of the east African nation.  Indeed, some London PR companies may well be queuing up to take Rwanda as a client (although Mary Fitzgerald’s comment on Saturday’s CiF notes that such PR is not as effective as countries like Rwanda believe).

I agree with Fitzgerald when she says that ‘Rwanda is a deeply complicated place, resembling neither the sanitised version spun by PR executives, nor the "wholly evil" version put forward by many of its critics.’  

Indeed Amnesty welcomed the country’s abolition of the death penalty and there’s anecdotal information that the country is reducing the rate of maternal deaths.

But the slick version of Rwanda is not the reality which thousands of journalists, opposition leaders and human rights activists in Rwanda are familiar with.

Victoire Ingabire for example, as President of the United Democratic Forces, had hoped to stand in presidential elections this year.  Instead she is facing the prospect of an unfair trial and imprisonment after being charged with ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘minimising the genocide’.

Human Rights Watch have had their member of staff removed from the country just aheadof  the election.  

Meanwhile, The Observer recently noted how the UN has demanded an investigation into what appear to be politically-motivated killings of opposition figures in Rwanda. Last week Amnesty International spoke of a ‘climate of fear’ building in the run up to the elections with up to 30 media outlets being forced to close and killings and arrests of any people who speaks out against the existing Rwandan government.

As Will Ross reports on this morning’s Today programme, people are fearful of speaking out against the Kagame authorities.
As well as cleaning up the country's city streets, President Kagame has worked hard to clean up the genocide-tarnished reputation of Rwanda.

If he wins today’s presidential election, will he put the same amount of effort into cleaning up Rwanda’s reprehensible track record of repression? I certainly hope so.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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