The cost of Rwanda’s decision to investigate 20 French officials

Monday December 12 2016

Christopher Kayumba

Christopher Kayumba 

By Christopher Kayumba

In an unprecedented move, Rwanda’s Prosecution office announced on November 29 that it had opened formal investigations into the role of 20 French officials in the country’s genocide.

While the prosecution didn’t name names, towards the end of last month, the country’s commission in charge of fighting the genocide ideology (CNLG) publicly named 22 former French senior military, political and diplomatic officials it said had played a role in the genocide and called for their prosecution.

The individuals named include military-generals such as the chief of staff of France’s military during the genocide Gen Jacques Lanxade and senior diplomats like Jean-Jacques Maurin an ambassador to Rwanda at the time of the genocide. While most of them are officially retired, many remain active in the academic, diplomatic and consulting worlds where they participate in shaping policy in institutions like NATO.

So what does it mean that Rwanda is now officially investigating their alleged role in the genocide and who will benefit or lose from this exercise?

Broadly, these investigations are consequential on many levels. At the basic level, advocates of justice and the fight against impunity as well as victims of the 1994 genocide might celebrate the development as positive and just.

For these individuals, investigating and establishing individual responsibility for the genocide, in this case the part of French officials, is a step towards truth and justice.

For some however, the timing of the move is suspicious and unlikely to lead to justice. This is because France recently announced that it was reopening investigations into the shooting down of a plane carrying former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a move that angered Rwandan authorities. The government’s investigation could therefore been seen as being tit-for-tat.

Some also worry the move might encourage France to reciprocate and adopt aggressive measures to the detriment of Rwanda.

In response, of course, Rwanda officials would say France has since the defeat of Habyarimana been aggressive towards the RPF-led government.

Beyond the problem of timing, some might argue that investigating individual French officials will lead nowhere since France is unlikely to co-operate with Rwanda on the matter.

Besides, even if these investigations led to indictment, it’s implementation would be difficult because co-operation in these matters depends either on agreements between governments or the relative power of the nation in question or its reputation with regard to due process.

Rwanda has no extradition treaty with France nor a reputable due process; at least not in the international scene nor relative power to excite co-operation. In that sense, these investigations are unlikely to lead to justice.

However, the investigations have moral, diplomatic and political value for Rwanda and Africans generally.

First, the principle of universal jurisdiction on which this move is based has thus far only been invoked by powerful countries like the United States to extradite “terrorists” and drug dealers.

The principle has also been used by countries like France against Rwanda in 2006 leading to the arrest of Lt Col Rose Kabuye in 2008 and Spain leading to the arrest of Lt Gen Karenzi Karake or former Chilean President Pinochet in October 1998.

Never before has an African country used it despite a number of atrocities committed on the continent. In that sense, whether it leads to justice or not, by investigating French officials — which is likely to lead to indictment unless something is done — sets a precedent.

Politically, if investigations lead to indictment, it will not only be embarrassing to the individuals in question or France generally, but will also set a “bad” example for other former French colonies normally intimidated by it to question its assumed moral superiority.

In the past, France’s role in the world was presented as a civilizing one; and its fight against, for example, Algerians seeking independence as a fight against “terrorists” and “barbarians.” And the dominant discourse in post-colonial Africa continued to present the French and other former colonial masters as the “civilized” and somehow superior.

Investigating French officials for crimes like genocide and probable indictment whether actualized or not therefore lowers France’s standing in the world.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba