A key issue stemming from Rwanda – The Royal Tour: an opinion from the Global North

“I don’t want to defend myself with what detractors have to say about me; I prefer to do things, judged by my countrymen and women, and we should be judged by the progress we make or lack of it. I’ll let you argue with the results, not with me.” His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda; Rwanda – The Royal Tour, 2018

This simple paragraph spoken by President Kagame during an interview with Peter Greenberg as part of the recent documentary film ‘Rwanda – The Royal Tour’ illustrates perfectly the problematic view that those outside of Rwanda particularly from the global North and West have when discussing the land of a thousand hills.

And it is an issue I am trying to deal with slowly, one group of students at a time.

The term ethnocentrism might be a word many are unfamiliar with; however its meaning will certainly evoke a sense of familiarity. As discussed by David Nelken in his 2009 article in the European Journal of Criminology ‘Beyond Ethnocentrism and Relativism’, Ethnocentrism is “assuming that what we do, our way of thinking about and responding to (an issue), is universally shared or, at least, that it would be right for everyone else.”

And with this simple definition, no doubt many readers will immediately be able to recall current or past international news whereby Rwanda has been criticised or condemned by onlookers, many of whom have never even spoken with a Rwanda citizen let alone set foot in the country itself.

Whether discussing politics, economics, justice, or free speech issues to name but a few, one does not have to spend more than a few seconds searching online to find significant criticism of the manner in which Rwanda conducts its affairs. In my own research into these issues, I have found significant signs of fundamental lack of knowledge and understanding of the full context of Rwanda.

Some writers ignore the challenges Rwanda has faced in recent memory such as the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Others ignore the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history and facts surrounding those different periods of time as well as knock-on effects of those time-periods still being faced today.

It is a particularly uphill task to attempt a reasoned discussion on free speech issues with many human rights campaign groups. There is a very definite and detectable, incorrect opinion in many North / West writings that Rwanda is somehow a stifled country where its people cannot talk freely.

I have gone to great lengths to debate with such people that having spent extended periods of time in Rwanda over the course of a number of years that this simply is not the case.

Having spoken with Rwandan people throughout the country, I have never come across a subject that cannot be discussed openly and freely, albeit that care should be taken in certain circumstances.

This care of course, comes when publishing or disseminating materials that could have either explicit or implied effects of either genocide denial, or in attempting to downplay the severity of what happened in 1994.

Campaigners will often point to free speech principles and say that no topic should be off limits for analysis and criticism. However when this is the case – I would pose the question – why is this criticism directed toward the African continent in general, and to Rwanda specifically?

To use the horrific events of the Holocaust during the Second World War as a comparator, a great many countries have laws in place to curtail, or at least urge caution when disseminating information in this context.

In Austria, section 3h of the National Socialism Prohibition law states that “whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media” is guilty of a crime that has the effect of “imprisonment from one to up to ten years, and in cases of particularly dangerous suspects or activity, be punished with up to twenty years’ imprisonment.”

In Belgium, the Negationism Law states that an individual who “denies, grossly minimises, attempts to justify, or approves the genocide committed by the German National Socialist Regime during the Second World War shall be punished by a prison sentence of eight days to one year, and by a fine… In the event of repetitions, the guilty party may in addition have his civic rights suspended in accordance with article 33 of the Penal Code.”

In the Czech Republic, their 2001 Law Against Support and Dissemination of Movements Oppressing Human Rights and Freedoms equally clearly states in s261a that “The person who publicly denies, puts in doubt, approves or tries to justify Nazi or communist genocide or other crimes of Nazis or communists will be punished by prison of 6 months to 3 years.”

Then in Germany, the Volksverhetzung, otherwise referred to as the law of ‘incitement of the people’, s130 Incitement to Hatred, revised as recently as 2015, states that anybody who “incites hatred against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins, against segments of the population or individuals” or “assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning an aforementioned group, segments of the population or individuals… shall be liable to imprisonment from three months to five years.”

Relating to denial, the German law also goes on to say that “Whosoever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies or downplays an act committed under the rule of National Socialism of the kind indicated in section 6 (1) of the Code of International Criminal Law (Genocide), in a manner capable of disturbing the public peace shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding five years or a fine.”

On applying scrutiny to just these few examples, points of minor detail aside, the substance of these domestic laws from North / West States are not dramatically different to those laws and practices in place within Rwanda that are designed to tackle divisionism and genocide ideology.

Yet very rarely if ever do we see public criticism directed toward free speech by the international community.

This should be thought of as strange if making direct comparisons: The Second World War ended now over seventy years ago, and is only in living memory for those who are either already or close to elderly in years. In other words, there is very little chance of a similar conflict escalating between those same nations again in any comparable sense.

Yet in Rwanda, although thankfully there has now been maintained peace since 1994, many of those that experienced the genocide are still comparatively young, with the majority of families in Rwanda today having been affected to some extent. As such, tensions could still escalate were they allowed the environment to do so, which is not a gamble that Rwanda can afford to take.

The laws that exist in Rwanda today are no more oppressive than those that have been cited above. Indeed the reader may detect that several of those West / North laws in fact carry greater prison sentences, contain further restrictions on wider civic rights, or cover a wider range of restricted discussion areas than in Rwanda.

So what is the logic in the disproportionately high level of criticism that Rwanda faces from the international community? Simply put, there isn’t any. The logical explanation is ethnocentrism. Rwanda had no option other than to think creatively in how it dealt with the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

With so few members of the judiciary left by the time the genocide was over, how could a ‘conventional’ legal mechanism be put in place for all accused persons? It couldn’t be – the length of time such a process would have taken would mean that even today, twenty-four years later we would only be a quarter of the way through the necessary prosecutions.

Offenders would have died without having faced justice, and survivors would have died never having seen justice carried out. And so Rwanda and its people had to think creatively, which they did, in reimagining Gacaca courts.

This is just a single issue – since 1994 Rwanda has had to continue to think creatively and differently in order to address the challenges it has faced. And its people have done this to the extent that the world is noticing the rapid economic development Rwanda is making.

What is important for a great many people to realise is that Rwanda has done this in spite of other international actors, commentators, and critics, not because of them.

The Rwandan context is unique, and not one that readies itself for adopting clones of the methods used elsewhere, it has to find its own way, and on the evidence of the past two decades, it is doing this perfectly well without the requirement to worry about what others outside the country think.

I am fortunate to be able to teach university students in Scotland as part of their degree studies, issues in comparative justice, laws, and politics.

My number one and two rules are to avoid ethnocentrism, and to analyse each country in its own context before drawing comparisons elsewhere. It is only once one has developed the deep understanding of the country under analysis on its own internal strengths and weaknesses, that criticisms can be truly classed as valid. 

Slowly, one group of students at a time, I hope to foster the development of future leaders in society that will be more careful and considered before making those flawed critiques from afar.    

The author is the Programme Leader, Criminal Justice - University of the West of Scotland


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