As Rwanda Voters Decide, Questions About U.S. Policy

Voters in line Monday outside a polling station in Kigali i

Voters in line Monday outside a polling station in Kigali. Rwandans voted in a presidential election that incumbent Paul Kagame is poised to win. Simo Maina/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Simo Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Voters in line Monday outside a polling station in Kigali

Voters in line Monday outside a polling station in Kigali. Rwandans voted in a presidential election that incumbent Paul Kagame is poised to win.

Simo Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Voters in Rwanda turned out in large numbers Monday for an election that is likely to give President Paul Kagame another seven-year term. The election is only the second since the 1994 genocide that left an estimated 800,000 people dead.

Kagame and his government are often praised in the West for overseeing a period of stability and economic growth following the devastating carnage.

But that image is starting to change.

Analysts raise concerns about human rights violations in Rwanda and say the United States should be doing more to call Kagame and his government to account for reports of repression and ethnic tensions.

Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher on Rwanda for Human Rights Watch, says the country's economic growth is coming at a high cost.

"Rwanda has committed itself to development, but also to democracy. On development it has come a long way, and on democracy it hasn't," Tertsakian said.

Human Rights Watch has documented what it called a worrying pattern of intimidation ahead of Monday's vote.

In June, an independent journalist was killed. Last month, the deputy head of Rwanda's opposition Democratic Green Party was found dead. Kagame has denied his government was involved.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speaks to journalist after casting his vote Monday. i

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speaks to journalists after casting his vote Monday. Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speaks to journalist after casting his vote Monday.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speaks to journalists after casting his vote Monday.

Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Two opposition leaders in Rwanda face charges stemming from a genocide law that Tertsakian says has been used against Kagame's political rivals.

"Even though the original intention may have been positive, to try to outlaw the kind of hate speech that we saw during the genocide, in practice this law has been abused. And really any individual who speaks out in ways that the government doesn't like risks being accused of this genocide ideology, which is a serious criminal offense punishable with imprisonment," she said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley took a cautious line at the State Department on Monday.

"We are encouraged that the elections appear to have come through peacefully and in an orderly fashion. We have expressed concerns in the run-up to these elections regarding what appear to be attempts by the government of Rwanda to limit freedom of expression. But we will wait until the election results before commenting further," Crowley said

Kagame poses a dilemma for the United States, says Steven McDonald, who runs the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He says the U.S. is comfortable with the Rwandan leader for many reasons and doesn't seem to want to push him too hard.

"We have the same problem elsewhere in the world ... guys who are in some bad odor, but because they are doing so much on the economic side, the stability side, that we just hate to topple the cart," McDonald said.

The U.S. should be more outspoken about human rights in Rwanda, McDonald says, because the situation is becoming increasingly repressive and ethnic tensions are still simmering.

"That tension is there and it is palpable. And it is like Kagame is putting the lid on the boiling pot, which will keep it still for a while but not forever. So I worry about the long term," he said.

In an interview last year, the State Department's technology adviser, Alec Ross, held up Rwanda as an example of a success story — a country trying to overcome ethnic hatred through economic growth and prosperity.

"President Kagame, I think, is taking a fascinating approach to building a 21st century Rwanda. It's a very small country. It's landlocked. It doesn't have the natural resources of its neighbors. So what President Kagame wants to do is to build a knowledge-based economy," he said.

The Obama administration has stated that long-term stability is best promoted by a democratic government that respects human rights. Activists say the United States should be making that case more forcefully in post-genocide Rwanda.

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