Rwanda-France: Nicolas Sarkozy Tries To Turn A ‘Painful Page’
When Mrs Agathe Habyarimana was arrested in France early this month, her detention opened another chapter in the world’s murkiest political murder mystery.
After spending 16 years in exile as the vulnerable widow of Rwanda’s assassinated Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana — the first victim of Rwanda’s 1994 holocaust — she was suddenly charged with genocide, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, creation of a criminal gang, murder and public incitement to commit genocide.
Mrs. Habyarimana was held only briefly by French police, on an international warrant issued last year by Rwanda, before being granted bail. But her detention marked a dramatic turning point in the process of assigning blame for the murders of close to a million people.
France’s steadfast refusal to extradite wanted genocide suspects and its disinterest in pursuing them through French courts had long poisoned relations with Rwanda.
In fact, Mrs. Habyarimana was evacuated from Rwanda by French paratroopers just three days after her husband’s plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile as it approached Kigali airport on April 6, 1994 — an assassination that ignited a frenzy of mass murder resulting in the deaths of between 800,000 and one million Rwandans in just 100 days.
During 16 years, France remained her patron and guardian, while downplaying its own role in the rwandan genocide and deflecting claims that it armed and trained the Rwandan militias that carried out the killings and sent soldiers and arms to support the Rwandan government during the mass murders.
A series of French governments repeatedly refused to arrest Mrs. Habyarimana as a perpetrator of the genocide, but they also repeatedly refused to grant her permanent residency status in France.
As recently as last October, French courts denied her refugee claim, citing serious suspicions she was involved “either as an instigator or accomplice” in the genocide.
But France’s official stand on the Rwandan genocide suddenly shifted last month when French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French head of state to visit Rwanda since 1994.
Ending a three-year diplomatic deep freeze and 15 years of acrimony over France’s responsibility for Rwanda’s terror, Mr. Sarkozy offered “to turn an extremely painful page” in relations between the two counties and admitted France made mistakes and “miscalculations” during the genocide.
“What happened here obliges the international community — including France — to reflect on the errors which prevented us from foreseeing, or stopping, this appalling crime,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “Errors of appreciation, political errors were committed here, which had absolutely tragic consequences. What happened here is a defeat for humanity.”
That was a dramatic climb down from previous French positions, in which the government claimed Tutsis rebels, led by Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame — not France’s Hutu allies — triggered the genocide by shooting down Mr. Habyarimana’s plane.
In 2006, a French investigative judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, renowned for tracking down convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal, indicted Mr. Paul Kagame and nine of his military commanders on charges of complicity in the murder of Mr. Habyarimana and his plane’s French flight crew.
The move infuriated President Kagame, who has always denied the accusation.
He immediately curtailed diplomatic relations with France, expelled French foreign aid workers and replaced French with English in Rwanda’s schools.
He even applied to gain admission to the British Commonwealth. (Rwanda became a member a day before Mr. Sarkozy’s visit to Kigali.)
Mr. Kagame also struck a special commission to investigate France’s involvement in the genocide and asked it “to determine whether to pursue legal action at the International Court of Justice.”
That report, tabled in August 2008, named 33 senior French military and political leaders who the Rwandans said should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The list included Mr. Mitterrand, then prime minister Edouard Balladur, former French foreign minister Alain Juppe and his then chief aide, Dominique de Villepin, a former foreign minister and French prime minister and Mr. Sarkozy’s chief political enemy.
Mr. de Villepin was deeply involved in French foreign policy in Rwanda, having been the head of the French foreign ministry’s Africa desk from 1991 to 1992, before becoming Mr. Juppe’s aide during the 1994 genocide.
As relations with Rwanda plunged into the deep freeze under Mr. de Villepin’s prime ministership, Mr. Sarkozy ran for president in 2007 on a promise to renew France’s pride in itself both at home and abroad.
He vowed to renew France’s relationship with Africa and to break with a past critics said was based on arrogant paternalism and long-standing ties with despots. As president, he acted on his promise, paying six visits to Africa in just three years.
As a leader with no personal connection to Rwanda’s tragedy, Mr. Sarkozy had a relatively free hand to seek renewed relations with Rwanda and sent his first official delegation to Kigali to discuss a rapprochement four months after he became president.
It hasn’t hurt that Judge Bruguiere’s case against Mr. Kagame has unravelled, with four crucial witnesses recanting their testimony, claiming it was manipulated or misused by senior French officials determined to indict Rwanda’s Tutsis rebels.
Earlier this month, Mr. Sarkozy’s government introduced a package of legal reforms that include a proposal to scrap France’s politically independent examining magistrates, like Judge Bruguiere, who is now retired.
Included in that reform package is a proposal to set up a special judicial unit in the Paris High Court to deal with charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The aim is to consolidate the expertise needed in complicated war crimes cases in one office and “to speed up judicial treatment of war crimes and genocide cases.”
Rwandan genocide survivors have already laid charges against 16 people in France, but none of the cases has ever come to trial.
News of the new war crimes unit broke the same day Mr. Kouchner travelled to Rwanda to make final arrangements for Mr. Sarkozy’s historic visit.
It was no coincidence Rwanda released a new 700-page report on Mr. Habyarimana’s murder just a day after Mr. Kouchner left.
Drawing on two years of research, 600 witnesses and a panel of ‘independent’ British ballistics experts who studied the missile attack on the Rwandan president’s plane, the report concludes Hutu extremists, some of whom were close to Mrs. Habyarimana, killed their own leader to stop him implementing a power-sharing agreement with Tutsis rebels under the Arusha Peace Accords. The murder served as a trigger for the genocide.
Without commenting on the new Rwandan findings, while proceeding with renewed diplomatic relations and moving to arrest Mrs. Habyarimana, France appears to have tacitly accepted Rwanda’s conclusions.