When facts cease to matter: The polarised world of Rwanda research
Reydams’ controversial article attacking a small NGO was full of factual errors and leaps of logic. Sadly, such scholarship is not rare in this field.
In the world of academia, few topics are subject to a more polarised debate than the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. When discussing this event, even eminent professors will make scurrilous accusations against those with whom they disagree. “Guilt by association” arguments frequently find their way into the scholarship under the guise of academic research.
In this often unproductive debate, a regular point of contention is the role of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-led rebel group that defeated the extremist Hutu regime in July 1994 and is still in power today.
Some contend that the RPF bears some responsibility for the genocide against the Tutsi and that they themselves committed “acts of genocide” against the Hutu. They point out that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) failed to investigate RPF crimes and claim this was the result of a deliberate cover up – one that may have involved the complicity, consent or even active participation of prosecutors and NGOs.
In August 2016, this conspiracy theory was given a boost by a 42-page article in Human Rights Quarterly, entitled “NGO Justice: African Rights as Pseudo-Prosecutor of the Rwandan genocide”. The piece by academic Luc Reydams centres in on the advocacy group African Rights. It claims that this apparently independent body was in fact “coopted” by the Rwandan rebels during the first weeks of the genocide, and that it consequently became an “outright RPF-front organization funded by and working closely with the RPF’s intelligence apparatus”.
Reydams claims that the African Rights report “Death, Despair and Defiance” became hugely influential and ended up shaping the whole narrative of the genocide. He says this document even helped determine the approach and actions of ICTR officials who supposedly referred to it as “the Bible”.
Pulling no punches, the academic contends that African Rights was ultimately a proxy for the RPF and that its landmark report was “instrumental in shaping and spreading an easily consumable one-sided narrative of the Rwandan conflict and that the resulting pensée unique contributed to RPF impunity”.
However, Reydams’ article turns out to contain hundreds of errors, unverified accusations and logical flaws. Nonetheless, it is worth examining how and where his major allegations fall short. His approach gives an insight into the sad state of the current debate at times.
Rumour and myth
Reydams’ main allegation – that the widely-accepted narrative of the genocide originated from RPF propaganda in African Rights reports – can be traced back to rumours spread by well-known extremists shortly after the genocide.
In his 1995 open letter to African Rights director Rakiya Omaar, for example, Hassan Ngeze, editor of the Hutu Power magazine Kangura, claimed: “All of the evidence put forward in the report was apparently provided to you by the RPF and its members.”
Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, leader of the extremist Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), similarly accused the rights group of being “a blind and unconditional ally of the RPF” in his book of the same year.
Such accusations have not been reserved to just African Rights. Hutu Power sympathisers have also described United Nations researchers as pro-RPF agents and the testimony of Human Rights Watch researcher Alison Des Forges as being “so coloured by prejudice as to be without objectivity”. In fact, even before the genocide erupted, Ferdinand Nahimana, co-founder of the hate radio station RTLM, tried to discredit a human rights investigation co-chaired by Des Forges.
Nahimana, Ngeze and Barayagwiza were all convicted by the ICTR in 2003 for their role in encouraging the genocide. But their rumours survived and were given new life by Reydams. He attempts to add weight to the old conspiracy theory by offering an alternative narrative around African Rights. He suggests that far from being an independent researcher, the group’s director Omaar worked hand-in-hand with the RPF who allegedly gave her access, fed her interviewees and accompanied her during fieldwork.
In this narrative, Reydams cites Theogene Rudasingwa, the RPF’s chief public relations officer in 1994, who claims he enlisted Omaar on 26 April 1994 in Nairobi, Kenya. He says he then put her in touch with RPF commanders in Rwanda. “I played a vital role in bringing her into the RPF network,” he says.
The article offers no details about how this arrangement operated in practice, however, and Rudasingwa did not elaborate when we contacted him. He said only that he has “nothing else to add or distract” from what he was quoted as saying in “NGO Justice”.
But for her part, Omaar is adamant Rudasingwa’s account is incorrect. She says she attended a press conference held by the former RPF official – as mentioned in “Death, Despair and Defiance” – but that she never spoke to Rudasingwa in Nairobi, nor had any kind of meeting with him there.
Instead, Omaar says her initial research in Rwanda was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Reuters News Agency. She says her work on the genocide started after she attended ICRC briefings in Nairobi. There, she met Geoffrey Loane, a senior ICRC official, who she says put her in touch with people who had been evacuated from Rwanda and others.
We contacted Loane. “Rakiya did attend on one or more occasions,” he confirmed. “We also met over lunch one of those days.” Omaar says she took an ICRC flight to a refugee camp near the Rwandan border in Tanzania. Loane says this “rings a bell”, but that he cannot be certain after so long.
The African Rights researcher only reached Mulindi, where the RPF was headquartered, in mid-May when she joined a crew of Reuters journalists entering Rwanda from the north. Journalist Buchizya Mseteka, who headed the crew, remembers giving Omaar this ride.
Reydams makes much of her time in Mulindi, but according to the BBC’s Mark Doyle, passing through this RPF stronghold could not be avoided and does not suggest any kind of collaboration. “It is ridiculous to say that the fact of going to Mulindi is to sign up with the RPF agenda,” he says. “Other crossings were only for the very brave”.
Jonathan Clayton of Reuters echoes this sentiment and adds that the rebels’ presence was crucial for their security. “In those days the RPF gave everybody minders, but as I recall we welcomed their presence,” he says. “I remember one chasing away a group of Interahamwe coming towards us with pangas drawn”.
Photojournalist Corinne Dufka, now a regional director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that the need for RPF security shifted over time though. “As the RPF control increased in Kigali, we were able to work on our own,” she says. ”That said, it was often risky, so we preferred going with a UN or RPF escort – but again not always.”
After Mulindi, Omaar went on to Byumba and the Kigali area where she conducted interviews in camps and hospitals. The testimonies she recorded correspond closely to accounts by journalists also present, such as Mark Fritz and Bill Berkeley. Omaar says she had a soldier as a guide at this time, but that he didn’t interfere with her work.
Her claim that she conducted research independently is backed up by others who were there at the time. Clayton, for instance, explains that the RPF was not omnipresent. “I remember seeing Rakiya interviewing people at one place where our paths crossed and I have no recollection then of any RPF military presence,” he says.
Two prominent victims – former prosecutor Francois Xavier Nsanzuwera and former human rights activist Jean Paul Biramvu – also recall meeting Omaar in separate camps. Contrary to Reydams’ claims, they both say they could speak freely and without an RPF presence. “I did not need an interpreter because Rakiya spoke in French”, says Nsanzuwera. ” She respected all my responses and wrote exactly what I said.”
In fact, when it comes to actual witnesses to Omaar’s work, which Reydams claims was closely overseen by the RPF, the academic only offers one source: a former African Rights employee who wished to remain anonymous. “The RPF would bring a dozen survivors or witnesses to [Omaar] at a time and she would ‘process’ them with the help of RPF translators,” the source is quoted as saying.
This former employee’s quotes are presented by Reydams in reference to the extensive interviews that formed a large part of “Death, Despair and Defiance”. But the source – whose identity is known to African Arguments – did not work for the advocacy group in 1994. He only worked on the second edition of the report, published in 1995. When contacted, he said of that research: “The RPF never pointed out witnesses for me to interview; they neither guided me towards any witnesses, nor was I supervised during the interviews.”
He was also eager to distance himself from Reydams’ accusations. “After reading his article, I was shocked to realise that he tried to give the impression that it was the RPF that identified the people for interview and that they shaped their accounts to fit with his [their] version of the facts,” he said.
Having claimed to have proven that African Rights was an RPF front, Reydams goes on to argue that its landmark report was instrumental in popularising the dominant narrative about the genocide.
But this claim is based on similarly fragile evidence, as is quickly apparent from the chronology of events. The African Rights report was published on 29 September 1994. By this time, the “grand narrative” of the genocide Reydams refers to had already become the consensus view. More than five months earlier, on 19 April, Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, had written an open letter to the UN Security Council. In it, he referred to the atrocities against the Tutsi minority as “genocide” and claimed “the campaign of killing was planned weeks before the death of President Habyarimana”.
At the same time, HRW consultants such as Des Forges were working tirelessly to get this same message across in the media and by visiting the White House, US Congress and UN Security Council. This was all before Omaar even set foot in Rwanda.
As well as suggesting “Death, Despair and Defiance” helped create the widely-accepted story of the genocide, Reydams claims it formed a core part of the ICTR’s investigations and actions. He says the report was referred to as “the bible” and significantly influenced the Court’s approach.
This claim also seems unfounded. When contacted, former ICTR investigator Humbert de Biolley and former prosecutor Sara Darehshori both said they indeed referred to the report. However, they insisted it was only one of many documents they looked at and that it was used for context only.
“[It was] certainly not a bible,” said de Biolley, laughing when he heard the claims. Darehshori, currently a senior lawyer at HRW, said the African Rights report was not even as influential as the expert report written by Des Forges in May 1995. “That was much more important in evidence presentation,” she said.
A former team leader of the ICTR investigators, who wished to remain anonymous, gave a similar account. He added that far from having to rely on “Death, Despair and Defiance”, there was lots of information available in 1995, whether from news archives, experts, books, UN peacekeepers or their own intelligence unit.
Darehshori does concede that the ICTR fell short in investigating crimes committed by the RPF. But she says that rather than this being due to the court buying into RPF propaganda, it was rooted in far more practical reasons.
“I do think the Tribunal failed to prosecute the RPF which damages its legacy,” she says. “There were some investigations into RPF crimes, but it was hard particularly since the office was based in Kigali and there was no witness protection and there were concerns about leaks of confidential information.”
There is no doubt that African Rights’ research, conducted in the most difficult of circumstances, was imperfect. Even those who praise the work see its inevitable flaws.
“I do not agree with all of what Rakiya and AR did or said, nor with all their explanations and conclusions,” says Clayton. “But by being there and doing her work she did mankind a huge service for which she deserves credit, not this type of character assassination.”
With little evidence, however, this is what Reydams does as he reaches conclusions that even his own sources find suspect.
For example, the academic lists two other Rwandan sources that informed his work besides the former African Rights employee and Rudasingwa. African Arguments contacted them as well. Noel Twagiramungu responded by saying that Omaar did become too close to the RPF-led government in later years, but he distanced himself from Reydams’ article, saying it “suffers from the syndrome of post-hoc conclusions”. Gerald Gahima simply requested that we say Reydams’ article misrepresents his views about Omaar’s work on the genocide.
The only Rwandan source to stand by Reydams therefore is Rudasingwa, whose comments should be understood in the context that the former RPF Secretary General fell out with President Paul Kagame in 2004, fled the country, and has since become one of the government’s leading critics.
A polarised field
In its May 2018 edition, Human Rights Quarterly has agreed to publish a critique of Reydams’ article. Co-written by seven Great Lakes specialists, the authors call his contribution “unreasonable, ill-founded and intemperate”. They go through twelve areas of contention and complain that the author provided “not a shred of evidence for the sweeping and damaging claims he makes”. The co-authors say the piece was unworthy of publication.
The fact it was published – despite scores of factual errors, leaps of logic and libellous aspersions – raises questions about the submission process at Human Rights Quarterly. However, while the character assassination of Omaar is particularly extensive, it is notable that attacks of this kind are sadly not rare within this particular academic field. Criticism is often aimed at individuals, who are accused of ulterior motives, rather than at the facts and theories they publish.
Academic Filip Reyntjens even wrote a pamphlet on this phenomenon, arguing that the debate “remains so emotional and polarised that the substance too often gives way to…the less than honest presentation of each other’s points of view and to what is known in English as ‘character assassination’, where one plays the man and not the ball”. Ironically, Reyntjens himself has employed these same tactics on occasion.
Helen Hintjens of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague suggests that, in this debate, there seem to be two present-day Rwandas. One is presented as deserving praise for its stability and development since the devastating genocide and civil war. The other is presented as led by a power-hungry and repressive regime with little regard for its citizens. Dissent or even mild criticism is not appreciated by those on either side of this divide.
As academic Jonathan Fisher points out, being critical towards the government means risking being barred from the country or worse. Meanwhile, as Jonathan Belloff notes, not being critical enough means risking being alienated by an academic community that is increasingly disapproving of the RPF regime.
This polarisation affects not just analysis of the current day, but ends up being projected onto the past, diminishing the quality of research on Rwandan history and the genocide. Both Fisher and Hintjens say that they and many other academics have had submissions to journals rejected, based not on the scholarly merit of the articles but on either their perceived disproportionate sympathy or hostility towards Kigali.
If “NGO Justice” is a sample of what those articles are replaced with, this is not a very encouraging development.
[Update 19/02/18: The response to Reydams’ article that was scheduled to be published in HRQ’s February edition has been pushed back to May.]