EU-Rwanda relations remain frosty amid claims of dictatorship

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been a longtime champion of breaking alleged "domination" by the West over his country. [DFID/ Flickr]

Poor diplomatic relations between Rwanda and the European Union have reached fever pitch, as Rwandan politicians discuss banning eight MEPs for allegedly interfering with national sovereignty. EU lawmakers, meanwhile, accuse the Rwandan government of running a dictatorship. EURACTIV Germany reports.

At the heart of this spat is Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader with the Unified Democratic Forces who was sentenced for inciting revolt, forming armed groups to destabilise the country and denying the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

In 2013, the country’s Supreme Court quashed her appeal and upheld her 15 year prison sentence. Immediately after the ruling was made, the European Parliament issued a scathing response accusing the Rwandan courts of not observing the principle of presumption of innocence of the accused and disregard for international judicial standards.

It further urged the Rwandan government to show commitment to investigating suspected abuses against journalists, opposition leaders and ensure that military detention centres were in tandem with international standards.

Parliament visit turns ugly

But the recent visit to Rwanda by eight MEPs to check progress on women’s rights and gender equality, turned ugly when the parliamentarians went to visit Ingabire in prison.

Their Rwanda counterparts accused them of visiting a criminal without seeking permission and lambasted them for belittling Rwanda as a sovereign state.

Upon their return to Europe, the parliamentarians released a carefully worded resolution that voiced their stand against Rwanda’s thinning political pluralism, dictatorship and the continued intimidation of the government’s dissenting voices.

The resolution called Ingabire’s case politically motivated and called for a review. The document, while celebrating Rwanda’s tremendous social and economic progress that has transformed ordinary lives and improved the economy, also asked the European Commission to evaluate its support for Rwanda with the view to ensuring that support was hinged on the country’s willingness to uphold human rights, political pluralism and freedom of expression and association.

“This resolution highlights the economic achievements of the country during the last 20 years, which have improved the life conditions of the population, reduced poverty and children mortality, and approached the country to the MDG objectives, and urges the government of Rwanda to extend these economic and social achievements to the field of human rights in order to fully move towards a modern and inclusive democracy which will then be able to provide the region with stability and to be example of good governance and national reconciliation,” read part of the statement.

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Rwanda calls for an apology

When the resolution was published, the Rwandan parliament started a debate on the conduct of the lawmakers during their visit, unanimously dismissed the document and called for a conditional travel ban unless the MEPs apologised.

They also accused the parliamentarians of having a hidden agenda against Rwanda. The resolution is being distributed to the European Commission, the East African Community Secretariat and Parliament, the African Union and the United Nation Security Council as they seek to make the Parliament resolutions on Rwanda invalid.

Foreign policy and diplomacy scholars now interpret the spat as Rwanda’s defiance against what it sees as interference with its style of leadership. The scholars also argue that Rwanda has always seen some Western countries as having a hand in the 1994 genocide.

“What we are experiencing at the moment with regard to the Rwanda-EU standoff, is a growing rebellion by Rwandese institutions of power on what they perceive as domination by the West. It is something that President Paul Kagame has championed and the other key institutions are following suit. Going forward we are likely to see Rwanda pushing for more radical resolutions because it sees this as the only way to exert its sovereignty,” said Profesor Abdikadir Feisal of the International Relations and Diplomatic Studies Department at Makerere University, in Uganda.

This follows a related development where President Kagame warned France against reopening an inquest into the death of former Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart Cyprian Ntaryamira, following the downing of the presidential jet in April 1994. That led to the genocide meted on Tutsis by Hutu extremists.

Rwanda has always suspected France of having a hand in the death of the former president, with Paul Kagame now insisting a reopening of the case would have far-reaching implications on relations between the two countries.

“Rwanda has always been very sensitive about its relations with the West following the genocide. With the fear that another skirmish might arise, the government has been very strict on political pluralism and freedom of association in the country, ideals that the Western countries uphold. It explains why Kagame has become very combative and defensive whenever such issues arise. The EU-Rwanda spat is a delicate issue but one that calls for serious compromise,” added Feisal.

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