Rwanda’s Kagame: losing his ‘license’?

The NYT had an interesting editorial about Rwanda’s gacaca courts today. The editorial writer referred to some of the ‘procedural’ problems with this court system, which is one of the main vehicles Pres. Paul Kagame’s government has been using to deal with the scores of thousands of still-untried genocide suspects who’ve been mired in the country’s prisons, some of them for nearly 10 years now.
The editorial also referred to Kagame as “Rwanda’s increasingly totalitarian president”. Not, imho, a totally inaccurate characterization of the guy (though I still have great empathy with the size of the dilemma his government–or any other government–would face as it tries to deal with the many still unresolved sequelae of the 1994 genocide.)
But seeing the NYT, this avatar of the “liberal establishment” US media, referring to Kagame in these terms made me wonder: Is Kagame on the verge of losing the victim’s license that he has been given by western liberals since 1994?
This term, ‘victim’s license’, was coined–or anyway, used in reference to Kagame–by George Monbiot, a columnist for Britain’s Guardian daily. Significantly, Monbiot used it both with reference to the Kagame government and to many post-Holocaust Jews.
In a column April 13, Monbiot wrote:

    I first encountered the phenomenom of Victim’s Licence when arguing on a radio show with a British importer of mahogany from the Amazon. I had pointed out that the timber cutters who supplied him were hiring gunmen to shoot indigenous people. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘life is cheap in Brazil’. I told him that was a shocking thing to say. ‘Don’t you lecture me about human rights,’ he snapped. ‘My parents were killed in the Holocaust.’

(I have to note the breath-taking prescience of Hannah Arendt, who in August 1946 wrote to her former professor Karl Jaspers that one of the real problems she saw with the recent Nazi Holocaust was that as a result of it, “we Jews are burdened with millions of innocents, by reason of which every Jew alive today can see himself as innocence personified.”)
Monbiot argued in his column that it has been because of the Victim’s License that westerners recently have been willing to grant to Kagame’s regime, “that we overlook the atrocious crimes committed by the government of Rwanda.”
His focus–unlike that of the NYT–was on the depradations the Kagame regime’s foreign policy has wrought on the people and natural-resource wealth of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):

    Six foreign armies have been involved in the theft of the DRC’s resources over the past ten years, but Rwanda’s was singled out by the UN’s report on the catastrophe there for the ‘institutional’ nature of its piracy. The plunder was not caused by an ill-disciplined army running out of control. It was a deliberate policy, commissioned and implemented by the Rwandan government.
    By 1999, the ‘Congo Desk’ of the Rwandan army was generating 80% of the Rwandan military budget– some $320 million. This is the equivalent of 20% of Rwanda’s gross national product. The money came principally from two sources: diamonds and coltan. Coltan is the ore from which tantalum, the expensive metal used in mobile phones, is extracted, and almost all of it comes from the DRC.
    Sixty to seventy per cent of the coltan exported from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations reported in 2002, has been mined ‘under the direct surveillance’ of the Rwandan army. Most of the rest was produced by subcontractors and companies answerable to the army or to other departments of the Rwandan government. Kagame’s people, in other words, had a near-monopoly on global coltan production.
    After fighting off the Ugandan army in June 2000, the Rwandan forces managed ‘to funnel all the diamonds in Kisangani [in eastern DRC ] through the Congo Desk’… The Rwandans appear to have been stealing about $2 million worth of diamonds a month. The army also captured almost all the eastern Congo’s public funds, taxing the people and seizing the revenues from water, electricity, roads and airports.
    The RPF’s original excuse for intervention disappeared pretty rapidly– in fact it soon linked up with the Hutu killers it was supposed to be hunting, and used them to help control the region. Instead, according to the UN, ‘With minor exceptions, the objective of [its] military activity is to secure access to mining sites or ensure a supply of captive labour.’ On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, according to a report by the Catholic Church, Rwandan soldiers tortured, raped and murdered local people.
    In the Guardian ten days ago, Alison des Forges wrote ‘There is no equivalence, of course, in the kind of crimes charged to the RPF and the crime of genocide.’ It’s true that the Rwandan army never sought to exterminate the people of the eastern Congo. It is also true that its displacement of local people, who fled as it burned their villages and seized their resources, caused more deaths than the Interahamwe. The militias murdered around 800,000. In the DRC, the UN suggests, over 3.5 million deaths in excess of previous levels of mortality ‘occurred from the beginning of the war up to September 2002. These deaths are a direct result of the occupation by Rwanda and Uganda.’

You can read the full text of the UN’s October 2002 report on the Rwandan military’s exploitation of DRC resources, and its consequences, here.
Actually, this last point that Monbiot mentions, about whether there is “equivalence” between a genocide that kills 800,000 and a series of (possibly non-‘genocidal’) massacres that kill 3.5 million, is an interesting one. Many people who write about international criminal justice issues make a big deal about how genocide is (in Carla del Ponte’s words) the “crime of crimes”– the crime that, as it were, is worse than all others.
But what difference does it make to the victim or survivor of a massacre like the ones that have been committed in eastern DRC whether the “intention” of the people committing the massacre was “genocidal”, within the strict, required definition provided in the 1948 Genocide Convention, or not?
Some of the worst, most thorough genocides in history have been carried out by organizations that may not have had the strictly “genocidal” intention– that is, that the intention of the people in carrying out the massacres or other exterminatory acts was to “destroy in whole or in part the members of a racial, ethnical, national, or religious group…”
But so what? If your actual “intention” is to corner the market in coltan, or whatever, and in the course of pursuing that goal you just “happen” to exterminate 3.5 million people–which is sort of analogous to what the Euro settlers did in North America, though there the strategic goal was to control all the land and its resources, not just to extract a few high-value resources… Well, if that is your intention, and you exterminate a few million people in pursuing it, why is that less bad than committing a genocide?
Personally, I think many western commentators obsess too much about the state of people’s intentions when they commit a bad act, rather than focusing on the bad effects of such actions. And that tendency was only exaggerated in 1948 when (Holocaust survivor) Raphael Lemkin came up with his proposal for a wholly new category of (doubly-intentioned) crime, called “genocide”.
Crimes against humanity is, it seems to me, a wholly sufficient concept, quite capable of encompassing the very worst kinds of bad acts that the 18th through 120th centuries witnessed. (Coincidentally, the centuries of the emergence of the power of “western” civilization… though the westerners never quite made it to the depracity of the Mongol hordes.)
So perhaps “genocide” as a concept doesn’t add anything very useful that isn’t already covered by “crimes against humanity”? What do any of you readers think?

3 thoughts on “Rwanda’s Kagame: losing his ‘license’?”

  1. I don’t think it is an addition, it is a subset. Crimes against humanity is a very broad term, sometimes it is practical to define a more specific subset. Of course the theory is that you than have *less* arguments about the definition, the practise is often different. So in that sense there is no need for the specific label ‘genocide’. However, it is good that once applied action is obligatory, so let’s keep it.

  2. O.K., I see the argument now. Rwanda (it was Zimbabwe a couple of years ago) is “plundering the natural resources of the Congo”.
    We know how natural resources are plundered. Corporations do it. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, no matter what Wole Soyinka thinks, is actually a portrait of corporate plunder. In the Congo. We know what it looks like. It wears a suit. I don’t believe this clandestine “plunder” of Africa. It does not correspond with reality. It only makes sense as a complaint by the “legitimate” imperialists that they are being excluded from territories they want to have for themselves. It does not and cannot mean that there is a parallel, clandestine globalisation in existence based on Rwanda or Zimbabwe. This kind of stuff is a joke, really.

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