The arrest of a high-ranking Rwandan official in Europe on Sunday marked the sudden escalation of a high-stakes diplomatic battle.
It may lead to an unprecedented showdown in a Paris courtroom at which French and Rwandan leaders will accuse each other of provoking the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 people were slaughtered.
Rose Kabuye, chief of protocol for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, on an international warrant issued in France.
This was not, as it may have seemed, a simple case of an African thug being brought to justice by righteous Europeans. Rwanda’s minister of information, Louise Mushikiwabo, said after the arrest that Kabuye flew to Europe despite being warned that she would be arrested on arrival. She has asked to be transferred to France to face trial.
The Rwandan government evidently has decided to confront France’s charges head-on rather than leave them hanging indefinitely.
“This is really the moment of truth with France,” Mushikiwabo said after Sunday’s arrest.
“We have been disappointed many times by international law, but we do hope that justice is not only for the wealthy and mighty.”
The stage is set for what could be a momentous confrontation. France accuses Kabuye of involvement in the 1994 presidential assassination that set off Rwanda’s 100 days of slaughter; she not only rejects that charge, she hopes to use the trial to present Rwanda’s powerful case against France.
Rwanda’s racist Hutu regime welcomed French influence and support for three decades, and France sent troops to its defense when the Tutsi-led rebels’ revolution began in 1990. Even at the height of the genocidal rampage in early 1994, France sent planeloads of weaponry to arm the murderous regime.
Once the rebel army gained control, France (with United Nations approval) established a protected zone in eastern Rwanda for government leaders and the killers who worked for them. More than 1 million people flooded in.
France then arranged for them to move across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire), along with their helicopters, armored personnel carriers and other tools of war.
Kagame and others now in power in Rwanda grew up as refugees in neighboring Uganda, speak English and reject French influence.
France’s leaders rightly fear that if Rwanda is able to get away with quitting the Francophonie, other French-speaking countries might follow. Because France’s claim to global power is based largely on its influence in Africa, that would be a grievous strategic blow.
It has become clear in recent years that the former genocide army, now based in Congo, does not have the power to overthrow Kagame. So its allies in France have adopted another tactic. They are trying to undermine Kagame’s moral legitimacy and that of his government.
In 2006, a French judge issued arrest warrants for nine Rwandan officials, including Kabuye, linking them to the killing of Rwanda’s former president, whose plane was shot down in 1994.
It was an odd indictment by international standards; the judge did not consider alternative theories, did not visit Rwanda and did not conduct any investigation of his own. Yet it served the French goal of painting Kagame’s government as a gang of criminals. Rather than being cowed, though, Kagame has raised the ante at every turn.
Rwanda broke off diplomatic relations with France after the indictments and then established a commission to investigate France’s role in the genocide. After months of hearings, that commission concluded that France’s support for the genocide “was of a political, military, diplomatic and logistic nature” and named high-ranking French officials who should be brought before international tribunals.
They include prominent military commanders and such elegant aristocrats as former prime ministers Edouard Balladur and Dominique de Villepin, and former foreign ministers Alain Juppe and Hubert Vedrine.
As if this impertinence was not enough, Rwanda officially applied to join the British Commonwealth, and Kagame was photographed in London with Queen Elizabeth. Then, last month, Kagame announced that English would replace French as Rwanda’s official second language.
In short, Kagame is doing something no African leader has ever dared: pulling his French-speaking country out of the Francophonie and into the world of the dreaded Anglo Saxons.
Kabuye, who is highly intelligent, poised and articulate, is an ideal figure to represent Rwanda, even in the defendant’s dock. She grew up as a refugee, fought in the rebel army and, after victory, became mayor of Kigali, the capital city.
Later, she headed the security and defense committee in the Rwandan parliament and directed the Kigali AIDS commission before becoming national protocol chief.
If the trial proceeds as planned, Kabuye’s lawyers not only will defend her, they also will try to use the proceedings to accuse French leaders of immense crimes. That would make this one of the most spectacular proceedings in the modern history of international law.
French officials may yet decide to free Kabuye in order to avoid this embarrassment. If they do not, they may regret the lengths to which they have gone to isolate and punish Rwanda.
Stephen Kinzer, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times for more than 20 years, teaches international studies at Northwestern University. His latest book is “A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It.”