On April 6th, 1994 a plane was shot down over Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Among the twelve people on board were Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira. It’s an open question who launched the surface-to-air missiles that sent the plane crashing into the gardens of the presidential palace. It’s possible that Hutu extremists in the Rwandan army did it. It’s also possible that the current president of Rwanda and leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Paul Kagame, is responsible.
Defense Minister Col. Théoneste Bagosora assumed control of the country that night. Within twenty four hours of President Habyarimana’s plane being shot down, every leader of the political opposition in Rwanda was assassinated. The grisly events that followed constitute what we now call the Rwandan genocide.
Kagame and the RPF took up the fight against the genocidaire regime. Refusing all proposed ceasefires, his forces took Kigali and, eventually, all of Rwanda. He was later elected president after parliament banned the largest opposition party from participating in the 2003 elections. The RFP was accused of systematic voter intimidation. Amnesty International said “the recent purge of MDR party members and alleged supporters prior to a scheduled May constitutional referendum along with the August presidential and October parliamentary elections, is a blatant infringement of these individuals’ human rights.” Kagame won with over 95% of the vote.
In 2006 a French judge indicted several of Kagame’s senior staff for their alleged role in President Habyarimana’s assassination. The Rwandan president responded by breaking off diplomatic ties to France and then published his own report on the genocide wherein he claims French soldiers were the ones who slaughtered both Hutus and Tutsis.
As Kagame’s seven year term was ending, he banned opposition candidates from running, forced dissenters out of the country, and allegedly ordered the assassination of André Kagwa Rwisereka, the Democratic Green Party’s vice president. Rwisereka’s body was found in July 2014, partially beheaded by a machete. A Rwandan journalist named Jean-Léonard Rugambage continued to publish critical articles about Kagame online, despite the government shutting down his newspaper. Rugambage was shot to death by the national security services outside his home that same summer. Kagame was re-elected with 93% of the vote.
In July of this year, Kagame refused to let the Carter Center into Rwanda to certify the elections. He was re-elected this month again with almost 100% of the vote.
You might be wondering, now that you’ve been reminded of all this, what William Jefferson Clinton was doing in Rwanda last week. Take it from him:
“I didn’t know if I had one more race in me the last time but I thought [Paul Kagame] was getting a raw deal and I was glad to try to help him.”
An odd choice for Clinton’s oft-praised political genius, wouldn’t you say? Especially considering he didn’t have much to say about this new protegé while he was, you know, President of the United States.
Perhaps it’s not so odd. Clinton did arrange to have U.S. special forces train Kagame’s RPF in counter-insurgency tactics. He forbade Secretary of State Warren Christopher from using the term “genocide” until the conflict was almost over and after hundreds of thousands of civilians already lay dead. “The technical definition is not perhaps what’s important here,” said Christopher. It’s not important unless you consider that the U.N. Genocide Convention requires intervention once an atrocity has been deemed genocidal.
Over twenty years later, Clinton says of Kagame’s actions during the genocide, including the RPF’s campaign of rape across Rwanda: “The matter has not been fully litigated.” I nominate this as a contender for best Clintonian doublespeak since the interrogation of the word “is” in a grand jury investigation.
“The economic and social gains under Kagame have been astonishing. And he says he’s gonna leave when his time is up. So I understand that there’s some people in the human rights community who believe that every good thing that has happened in Rwanda should be negated by what they allege that they have done in the eastern Congo.” Clinton is saying that potentially positive outcomes are justification enough for whatever sinister tactics used to achieve them – that the ends justify the means.
He went on, in an interview with a BBC reporter last week, “All those people who talk about that, where were they when the Hutus went crazy in ‘94?”
“The world should have been there,” he added.
Of course, nobody now disputes that Clinton knew what was happening in Rwanda. He dedicated himself to not getting involved or doing anything to try to stop the killing. Though the White House didn’t publicly use the word “genocide” until June, it was being murmured in private and scribbled on secret memos as early as April 23rd.
“They feared this word would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn’t want to act,” said Alison des Forges, a genocide expert at Human Rights Watch. It’s safe to assume that Clinton considers her a member of “the human rights community.”
Again this year, journalists and opposition figures are accusing Kagame of intimidation and repression. Clinton offered this deranged soliloquy in defense of the regime. “Let’s talk about the free press. Yeah, they had a free press. Venomous hate-filled radio that urged people to go out and commit mass murder. So, look, I believe in the free press. When I president I helped to keep the press free who made a living feasting on my bones every day … But I think we, again, have to be a little bit sensitive to the fact that if you’re a Rwandan you don’t necessarily hear it that way because an alleged free press helped push Rwanda into a boiling cauldron of butchery.”
It would be astonishing enough on its own to hear a former U.S. president speaking with such contempt for the rights secured by our own Bill of Rights. (Though Clinton was always much more fond of the Fifth Amendment than he was of the First.) But for Clinton to assert that the violent, racist propaganda broadcast by the genocidal Rwandan government was somehow the result of a free press? That journalists and broadcasters are the ones at fault for one of the most heinous atrocities in living memory? I struggle to think of a more vile and outrageous thing ever uttered by a modern American president.
Don’t forget, either, that the United States had the capacity to jam the government’s propaganda broadcasts and declined to do so.
What more could Bill Clinton possibly do to alienate progressive-thinking liberals and leftists? How could Democrats still be excited about the prospect of this man becoming the next president’s chief aide and confidant? Only willful ignorance. Have it your way. But I say these comments that were rebroadcast tonight on BBC television – on World Humanitarian Day, good god – are utterly shameful. And his conduct during the Rwandan genocide was criminal.
Does Clinton think so? Not a chance.
“Whatever guilt I had went away when I took responsibility for not helping them,” he told the same BBC reporter.
There you have it. Bill Clinton has finally forgiven himself. Let the healing begin.
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A version of this post was originally appeared on my Tumblr in August of 2013. I was inspired to re-post it with some superficial revisions after Steven W. Smith’s op-ed on Rwandan war crimes ran in the July 19th, 2015 edition of the New York Times. Photo of Bill Clinton and Paul Kagame taken from Kigali Today. Featured image by Charles Onyango-Obbo. Photo of Kagame in fatigues is from here. For the BBC’s interview with Clinton find the audio here and the article here.