Rwanda: An Unfair Target for Criticism

As a U.S. State Department consultant, I was among the first Americans who went to Rwanda In 1997 to assist the country in rebuilding the journalistic corps and establishing a private media system. During that visit I had a chance to discuss with Ambassador Charles Staples what expectations the Untied States had for the development of democracy and conducting elections in Rwanda. He assured me that the State Department would view Rwanda as a special case because of the devastation that the genocide caused in the society. He said that the U.S. would not push Rwanda to conduct elections and do all the other things that we in the West consider to be measures of Democracy.
Rwanda has continued to show immense economic, social and political development amidst unfair criticism and expectations. The New Times /  T. Kisambira
Rwanda has continued to show immense economic, social and political development amidst unfair criticism and expectations. The New Times / T. Kisambira

As a U.S. State Department consultant, I was among the first Americans who went to Rwanda In 1997 to assist the country in rebuilding the journalistic corps and establishing a private media system.

During that visit I had a chance to discuss with Ambassador Charles Staples what expectations the Untied States had for the development of democracy and conducting elections in Rwanda.

He assured me that the State Department would view Rwanda as a special case because of the devastation that the genocide caused in the society. He said that the U.S. would not push Rwanda to conduct elections and do all the other things that we in the West consider to be measures of Democracy.

It is unfortunate that the promise of Ambassador Staples and the goodwill of others, including human rights organizations, have not prevailed with respect to Rwanda's recovery and political development.

Over the years, I have noticed that there is a double standard when it comes to assessments of democracy in Rwanda, justice in Rwanda, freedom of expression in Rwanda and human rights in Rwanda. No other country, not even the United States, is being held to the standards and expectations that are being imposed on Rwanda in many crucial domains.

The fact that we are having this panel discussion, titled and advertised as it was, and laced with the poisonous rhetorical questions that were posed to guide the discussion, is evidence that there is a double standard being applied when it comes to Rwanda and to President Kagame.

It is hard to imagine that a similar panel would be assembled to examine the "myth" of President Obama, the Prime Minister of Israel, or any other world leader, or to explore in serious public debate the unsubstantiated charges and allegations of serious crime that have been made against Paul Kagame.

We are not here to debate the wisdom or appropriateness of the U.S. trying to make the world over in its own image. But it is necessary to examine the double standard that is being applied to Rwanda, especially in the area of freedom of expression and particularly when it comes to laws against denying the genocide of the Tutsi that took place in 1994.

Yes, freedom of expression is an important component of a free society and for ensuring the human rights of individuals. But freedom of expression is not absolute. It has its limitations. It always has and it always will in every society.

The history of freedom of expression in the United States contains many chapters about the suppression of dissidents, Aliens legal and otherwise, Communists and Socialists of every stripe, of unpopular religious groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses, and the silencing of other critical voices and vulnerable minorities who questioned the orthodoxy of their day and expressed political views that the majority found intolerable and offensive. These groups and their ideas were characterized as "Threats foreign and domestic" that the government found it necessary to guard against.

The U.S. government has exercised prior restraint (silencing expression) to preserve national security, the lives of war troops, public peace, public decency and morals, as well as fair trials for the accused as important societal values when weighed against the individual's right to free expression and freedom of the press. It is dishonest to pretend that these practices were not a part of the American experiment in freedom and democracy.

It is also hypocritical for human rights organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere to act as if these practices do not still exist in the democratic countries that they point to as paragons of virtue when it comes to freedom of expression and respect for human rights.

American journalists are still obligated to obey court injunctions and gag rules that put a prior restraint on their right to broadcast and publish what they please. Libel and invasion of privacy are recognized civil offenses for which journalists and private parties are still accountable under U.S. law.

It is at their peril that Americans exercise freedom of expression in 2011 if they choose to threaten the life or limb of the U.S. president or anyone in the line of succession to the presidency.

Threatening the President of the United States is a class D felony under United States Code Title 18, Section 871. In fact, the prototype for Section 871 was the British Treason Act of 1351.

(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

Perhaps the most well-known and long-prevailing restriction on freedom of expression in the United States is that of "Falsely shouting Fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic." Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the infamous line in a unanimous Supreme Court decision upholding the conviction of Socialist Party Secretary Charles Schenck because he advocated opposition to the draft during World War I. The Court found that The First Amendment did not protect Schenk's speech encouraging insubordination during times of war because such political advocacy was a "clear and present danger" to the nation.

The clear and present danger test for punishing harmful speech has evolved over time but what has remained constant are the limitations on communicating falsehood and causing public harm. Even today, freedom of expression is prohibited if it will result in "Imminent lawless action." America still finds it necessary to punish speech in order to guard against evils.

Rwanda must also be vigilant against the clear and ever-present danger of genocide as manifested in the ideology and actions of those who have vowed to finish the job they started in 1994. They have expressed it in church houses and schoolrooms across the country. They have expressed it to UN Tribunal staff and publicly on a Rwandan radio station. The history of such expression in Rwanda testifies definitively that there is no greater threat to the nation than the imminent lawless action promised by these would-be perpetrators.

So in response to this documented danger, the government of Rwanda conducted studies, held parliamentary debates and promulgated laws prohibiting genocide ideology; denying, negating, minimizing, justifying or approving of genocide; and prohibiting discrimination and sectarianism. Instead of applauding these measures as prudent actions of a responsible government, Rwanda has been severely criticized and accused of suppressing political dissent, media censorship, and denying human rights.

The double standard is even more obvious when you consider that laws against Holocaust and genocide denial exist in more than 15 countries--including Rwanda. No other country with similar laws is criticized as Rwanda is.

Rwandans are free to say what they want to say. There is no prior restraint exercised by the government. However, genocide deniers, minimizers, trivializers and sympathizers must face the consequences of their expressions and pay the price for their illegal actions.

It took more than 150 years for freedom of expression to mature to the level where it is now in the Untied Stated. Rwanda is being asked to reach the same level of tolerance just 17 years after the devastating genocide. That ladies and gentlemen is an unfair and vicious double standard.

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. At the end of 2009 there were 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000 people. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2,292,133 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and in county jails in 2009 -- about 1% of the adult population in the U.S.

The United States has 4% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population.[9]

In 2009, the American penal system held about 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars.

Another 4.9 million adults were either on probation or parole. In total, 7.2 million adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 -- about 3.1% of the U.S. resident adult population."[1][2][9]

The United States is 5th among the nations with the death penalty that still executes prisoners. In 2010, the U.S. executed 46 people.

America's record on the use of torture and extraordinary rendition of suspects to countries like Libya is well known.

The systemic discrimination against ethnic minorities is a continuing and pervasive practice in American society as is racial profiling by law enforcement agencies. In fact, the courts stepped in last week in an attempt to halt the execution of an African-American man in Texas because of racial bias in the judicial system and racist comments that were made by an expert witness during the trial proceedings.

Two wrongs never justify any wrongdoer, but the U.S. and members of this panel are hardly in a position to be lecturing anyone about human rights, never mind lecturing Rwanda which has made remarkable progress in dispensing justice and reestablishing the rule of law after the genocide against the Tutsi minority in 1994.

I also question the motives and agenda of detractors, critics and defectors who represented the Government of Rwanda and worked side-by-side with President Paul Kagame for years before denouncing the very same government and president for crimes that, if we believe their accusations, they themselves would have been complicit in committing against the Rwandan people.

The reasonable person of ordinary common sense would require explanation of how it is that these critics and defectors have just suddenly come to see so clearly the wrongdoing of their colleagues and compatriots after being blind to these infractions for such a long time. Why is it that they have waited until they are no longer enjoying the benefits of their position with the Rwandan government to denounce and decry it as criminal and repressive?

Tim Gallimore is an international communication consultant and mass media trainer. From 2004 to 2008 he acted as spokesperson for the prosecutor of the ICTR. Tim has a Ph.D. in mass communications from Indiana University- Bloomington.

The above is a speech the author presented at and Open Society Institute conference on September 19 entitled, "Revising Paul Kagame: Myth and Reality After the Genocide in Rwanda."

Ends

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