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General News    H3'ed 7/30/12

State Department Says Obama Official Misquoted on Rwanda

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Last week the Guardian quoted the head of the U.S. Office of Global Criminal Justice, Stephen Rapp, saying that the president of Rwanda may be tried for possible war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC). The story was puzzling for several reasons. Neither Rwanda nor the United States is a member of the ICC, established in 2002 as a permanent war crimes tribunal.

Near Congo/ Rwanda border
Near Congo/ Rwanda border by Georgianne Nienaber

Ironically, Ambassador Rapp joined the ICTR (Rwanda Criminal Tribunal) in 2001 and led the prosecution against the leaders of the RTLM radio station and Kangura newspaper for inciting the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by the Interahamwe militia. 

Rapp is probably best known for directing the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor during the Sierra Leone Civil War. It seemed improbable that Rapp would make such a reckless statement, especially given his expertise about media and its ability to generate misinformation, hate crimes and prejudice. 

A phone call and email to the press office at the Department of State revealed that the Guardian misquoted Rapp and took comments completely out of context -- a mistake that the Guardian has yet to correct.

A senior State Department Official provided the following in an email:

In his Guardian interview, Ambassador Rapp sought to underscore the importance of holding to account those responsible for crimes against humanity, noting as a general principle that neighboring countries have been held responsible in the past for cross-border support to armed groups. He was not calling for any specific prosecutions in this case. (emphasis added)

The background briefing included "deep concern" about Rwanda's involvement in the region, echoing previous State Department comments on the M23 rebellion in eastern Congo.

The United States has repeatedly expressed to the Rwandan government its deep concern about Rwanda's support to the Congolese rebel group called M23, as outlined in the UN's Group of Expert's Report. Our immediate focus is on the cessation of violence in eastern DRC, the end of outside support to all rebel groups, and the demobilization of those groups. We support regional cooperation against armed groups, including joint military operations that are conducted with civilian protection as the foremost consideration and that are based on mutual consent and respect for sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the erroneous suggestion by the British press that Rapp was calling for the specific prosecution of Paul Kagame was immediately picked up by world media and subsequently used by anti-Rwanda hate groups and lobbying organizations calling for the United States to pull back funding. In a token gesture, the US had pulled $200,000 in funding for the end of fiscal year 2012, but the funding will immediately kick in again in October 2013. The Netherlands followed suit after the  Guardian article and suspended 6 million USD in aid. Whether the funding decisions were a priori in nature is impossible to determine. History will judge.

The monetary amount is inconsequential except in the arena of public opinion, and public opinion is easily manipulated in this day of immediate response and rumor mongering by social media.

An indictment by the ICC is reserved for the worst war criminals, and the erroneous Guardian story significantly wounded an already beleaguered country in the arena of public relations.

In the absence of a coherent African policy, is the Obama administration playing to an election cycle of rumor diplomacy? Or is this just another excuse to bolster AFRICOM forces in place of solid policy as this article suggests? 

The lack of political muscle at State and USAID on Africa has come at a time when the Pentagon is increasingly active across the continent. The Pentagon's Africa Command, known simply as Africom, is well-resourced (established in 2007, Africom already has more personnel than the total number of USAID international staffers working on the continent), and wading into policy debates in ways that the Pentagon rarely did in the past when it came to Africa.

Rwanda has consistently and vehemently denied speculation that it is supplying arms to the M23 rebels. The M23 rebellion has issued press release after press release saying the same, but the Washington Post is the only media outlet that is reporting on the content.

As reported by Voice of America, Rwanda went through a United Nations report on arms smuggling "line by line" at a meeting with the Group of Experts who prepared the report. Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said Rwanda submitted a counter argument to the Security Council on Friday. The final report by the group of Experts is due later this year, but press leaks and lobbying by anti-Rwanda and anti-Tutsi hate groups have fanned discontent. Rumors are rampant on social media that Rwanda has been abandoned by the United States, its strong ally since the 1994 genocide.

Rwanda is not a perfect country and neither is any country in Africa or the western world for that matter. You can examine the conflict in Syria, the Israel/Palestine quagmire, or US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and make arguments and counter arguments for placement of blame and whether atrocities occurred.

Personally, I believe the current conflict in DRCongo will become the historical poster child for media bias, distortions, under-reporting and outright lies that have contributed to hate speech in social media and an escalation of a conflict that could have been resolved at the beginning by negotiation and implementation of the 2009 Goma Peace Accord.

NOTE:  The Guardian "updated" its story this weekend with another quote from Rapp.

We have a lot of influence with the Rwandans. We've been very supportive of them. We're prepared to speak frankly to them as we have privately in the past, and now publicly," Rapp said. "M23 was reinforced by Rwanda, and that has to stop. And that's the message we're delivering.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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