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Exploiting Rwanda

Rwanda’s tragedy has been exploited for many purposes. Add slandering a pro-Palestinian activist to the list.

Since I wrote this article about the Jewish Defense League last month Toronto’s Alex Hundert has repeatedly labeled me anti-Semitic. The self-declared “anti-fascist” tweeted at Pacific Free Press, Rabble, the NDP and others to “cut ties” with me.

In response to this article the former Upper Canada College student harangued at least one prominent woman for posting it on her Facebook page. Hundert told her — wait for it — I’m anti-Semitic. Lacking in evidence or maybe sensing diminishing returns with that smear he added that I’m a Rwandan genocide denier.

If he means a researcher and writer on foreign affairs who always questions official government narratives/propaganda then I guess a “no contest” plea would be appropriate. The common portrayal of the Rwandan Genocide in Canada omits important context and is factually incorrect in substantial ways. It is also logically hollow, only believable because of widespread racism and anti-Africanism. (According to the most outlandish aspect of the official story, Hutu extremists murdered the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and much of the Hutu-led Rwandan military command, which brought the Hutu to their weakest point in three decades, and then decided to begin a long planned systematic extermination of Tutsi.)

Do I believe hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Tutsi were slaughtered in mid-1994? Yes, definitely.

Was there a long planned high-level effort to wipe out all Tutsi? Probably not.

Were tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Hutu also slaughtered in mid-1994? It’s likely.

Was Paul Kagame, the person widely hailed for ending the killing, instead the individual most responsible for the mass slaughter? Probably, since his forces invaded Rwanda from Uganda, engaged in a great deal of killing and blew up the presidential plane that unleashed the genocidal violence.

It’s telling Hundert would seek to smear me as a Rwanda genocide denier, rather than criticize my other controversial views such as that the private automobile should be eliminated, or that former Prime Minister Lester Pearson was a war criminal or that Canadian peacekeeping is often a form of imperialism. Maybe it’s because the label “genocide denier” hints at some type of hatred rather than a political disagreement. Or maybe Hundert hopes to associate me with Nazi Holocaust denial, which we’ll see more about below.

Fundamentally Hundert chose the issue because most Canadians know little about Rwanda and, to the extent they know anything about the country, they’ve heard an extremely one-sided media account of the complex tragedy that engulfed Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990s. News consumers are generally familiar with a Rwanda fairy tale focused on a white Canadian saviour. According to serial Kagame-Rwanda propaganda spreader Gerald Caplan, “the personal relationship so many Canadians feel with Rwanda can be explained in two words: Roméo Dallaire.” In a forthcoming book about left Canadian foreign policy I detail how, in their haste to laud a Canadian military “hero”, progressives have echoed a highly simplistic version of Rwanda’s tragedy, which has legitimated Africa’s most blood-stained dictator, Paul Kagame.

Beyond aligning with liberal Canadian foreign policy mythology, Hundert is tapping into the US Empire’s narrative. Washington and London’s support for the Uganda backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), as well as Kagame’s more than two-decade long rule in Kigali, explains the dominance of the Rwandan Genocide story. According to Edward Herman and David Peterson in Enduring Lies: The Rwandan Genocide in the Propaganda System, 20 Year Later, “[US and British] support, combined with the public’s and the media’s distance from and unfamiliarity with central African affairs, made the construction and dissemination of false propaganda on Rwanda very easy.”

After the Cold War, Washington viewed Kagame’s RPF as an imperial proxy force in a French-dominated region. A trio of authors explain in The Congo: Plunder and Resistance: “The plan expressed clearly by the White House at the time was to use the Rwandan army as an instrument of American interests. One American analyst explained how Rwanda could be as important to the USA in Africa as Israel has been in the Middle East.” Over the past two decades Kagame has repeatedly invaded the Congo, which has as much as $24 trillion in mineral riches.

Alongside his role as a US client, Kagame has drawn close to Israel. Trained at the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Kagame visited Israel for the first time in 1996 and Africa’s most bloodstained dictator has been back repeatedly. In March Kagame was the only international head of state and first-ever African leader to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference. On May 21 Kagame received the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Prize for Outstanding Friendship with the Jewish People at a New York event with Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer and Alan Dershowitz. In 2013 the “butcher of Africa’s Great Lakes” shared a New York stage with staunch Zionists Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

“He is the only living man to stop a genocide,” said Boteach to the Jewish Forward in 2014. “You need to look at the criticism on Rwanda through the same lens you look at criticism against Israel.” (After National Security Adviser Susan Rice criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for speaking to Congress about the Iran nuclear agreement without President Obama’s approval, Boteach placed an ad in the New York Times which read “Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide … both the Jewish people’s and Rwanda’s”.)

Pro-Israel Jewish groups have bequeathed Kagame the genocide moniker. Author of Rwanda and the New Scramble for Africa: From Tragedy to Useful Imperial Fiction, Robin Philpot explains that long-time director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, Efraim Zuro, and former US Holocaust Memorial Museum project director, Michael Berenbaum, were invited to a conference in Kigali a year after the mass slaughter in Rwanda. Philpot notes, “Efraim Zuro then became an advisor to the Rwandan government in its hunt for génocidaires, and from then on Zionists throughout the world were willing to share the use of the term ‘genocide’ with Rwandan Tutsis. Israel has very jealously guarded the use of that term; they have, for example, never agreed to share it with Armenians, largely because of Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey.”

But, those who draw an analogy between the 6 million killed in the Shoah and the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Rwanda are partaking in something akin to Nazi Holocaust denial (or extreme minimization). European Jews were targeted because of their religion/ethnicity, the violence was state organized and it mostly flowed from an ideology promoted from above.

The context in Rwanda was different. Speaking the same language, sharing the same culture and practising the same religion, the Tutsi/Hutu divide is historically a caste-type distinction the Belgians racialized. “Prior to colonization,” explains Ann Garrison, “the Tutsi were a cattle owning, feudal ruling class, the Hutu a subservient peasant class. Belgian colonists reified this divide by issuing ID cards that labeled Rwandans and Burundians as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa [1% of the population].”

The genocidal killings were not a long planned attempt to exterminate all Tutsi, which even the victors’ justice dispensed by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) effectively concluded. Instead, it was the outgrowth of a serious breakdown in social order that saw hundreds of thousands slaughtered by relatively disorganized local commands fearful of a foreign invasion that eventually conquered Rwanda and drove a quarter of the population out of the country. Probably an equal — and possibly a greater — number of Hutu were killed.

Jews didn’t end up in power in European countries after World War II, nor did the Herero in Namibia, Armenians in Turkey, indigenous people in North America, Maya in Guatemala, etc. Rwanda is a peculiar case where the minority — 10% of population — targeted for extermination ended up ruling after the bulk of the violence subsided.

Of course, Hundert doesn’t care about what happened in Rwanda. He’s labeling me a genocide denier because I’ve challenged Canada’s contribution to Palestinian dispossession. Hundert seems particularly bothered by my linking pro-Israel Jewish organizations to fascistic, anti-Muslim groups, which pits his “anti-fascism” against his liberal-Zionism.

The Rwandan tragedy is often invoked in Canada for ulterior purposes. The Romeo Dallaire fairy tale is part of developing a “do-gooder” foreign policy mythology designed to lull Canadians into backing interventionist policies. More generally, a highly simplistic account of the Rwanda Genocide has repeatedly been invoked to justify liberal imperialism, particularly the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Maybe I should be honoured that Rwanda is now cited as a reason to suppress my writing.

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Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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