NAIROBI, Kenya — Rwanda has been hailed for years as a beacon of peace and economic growth in its post-genocide period, and on Jan. 1 it took a prestigious seat on the United Nations Security Council. But after years of accolades, international opinion of the tiny Central African country appears to be shifting.
At issue are allegations in a U.N. experts' report that Rwanda last year began aiding a Congo rebel group called M23 that is accused of rape, using child soldiers and conducting summary executions in eastern Congo. Rwanda denies the accusations.
Since President Bill Clinton failed to intervene in Rwanda's 1994 genocide – during which extremist Hutus killed more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus – the United States has been one of Rwanda's staunchest allies. That made it all the more noteworthy when President Barack Obama warned President Paul Kagame in December that Rwanda must stop supporting M23.
One month earlier Britain announced it was withholding some $34 million in aid to Rwanda because of the allegations over M23. And the U.S. suspended its military aid to Rwanda, albeit only $200,000.
Philippe Bolopion, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Times late last month that Rwanda was able to win its two-year, rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council in an October vote despite the June U.N. report because of its friendship with the U. S.
Still, Bolopion believes the international view of Rwanda is changing.
"They got away with a lot in the past because of their own tragic history concerning the Rwandan genocide, where the international community failed to do anything," Bolopion told The Associated Press. "They've also used the fact that they are a rather efficient country when it comes to spending aid money. These two elements have allowed them to get away with a lot of things in the past. But their support of M23 has been blatant, and they are such an abusive group. The past few weeks and months the pressure on Rwanda has increased significantly."
Rwanda's leaders bristle at the suggestions they are helping M23. Kagame, in his Dec. 31 state of the nation speech, addressed the allegations.
"As you know there is a report based on falsehoods which some of our longtime partners have used as the basis to suspend development aid, in a manner that violates agreed principles of international development partnerships," Kagame said.
Kagame touted Rwanda's economic growth in 2012 – predicted to be 7.7 percent. But it would have grown even faster, he said, except for the global economic downturn, and "the consequence of conflict in a neighboring country that has been blamed on Rwanda when this is not true. We are not the cause of or contributing factor to this conflict, even those who claim this know it."
Just before Rwanda joined the Security Council, the council added M23 and two of its leaders to the international sanctions list, which many at U.N. headquarters viewed as a significant message to the Rwandan government.
Still, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted this on Twitter: "Showing a sense of humor, UN Security Council names (hash)Rwanda to chair its Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention & Resolution in Africa."
Not everyone is souring on Rwanda, however. A book published in November called "Rwanda Inc." concludes that Rwanda "now stands as a beacon of economic rejuvenation and recovery" through self-reliance and self-determination. The authors say that Kagame's leadership reveals a comprehensive vision, exacting attention to detail and a drive for execution.
The book highlights glowing accolades of Rwanda's economic progress on its first pages from Clinton, the chairman of JPMorgan Chase, the chief executive of Starbucks and the president of Marriott International, businesses that may want to invest in Rwanda's growing economy. Still, the authors acknowledge the complicated – and changing – world view of Rwanda, especially concerning international standards of free speech and human rights.
Human Rights Watch has been calling on the Security Council for months to sanction the Rwandan officials the rights group believes is helping M23. But Bolopion says it's doubtful that will happen now that Rwanda sits on the council. Like the book "Rwanda Inc.," Bolopion says that Human Rights Watch recognizes the good Kagame has done economically.
"We just don't think it's an excuse for crushing dissent or arming rebels in neighboring countries," he said. "We recognize it but it doesn't change the point we're trying to make."