MPs’ embrace of Rwanda’s Kagame undermines democratic values: prof

Ottawa –

Canada missed the mark when it shared a warm hug with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the Women’s Development Conference in Kigali this week, says an expert who studies countries’ relations with authoritarian states.

“Rwanda is definitely an authoritarian state. Most people would say it has become more and more authoritarian in the last decade,” said Marie-Yves Desrosiers, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Every time we make a wrong choice, every handshake should be accompanied by the question of what is behind the handshake, because it comes at a price.”

This week, a Canadian high-level delegation met with Kagame as part of a visit to the Women’s Deliverers conference in Kigali to discuss ways the two countries could work together further.

In a photo posted online, International Development Minister Harjit Sajan, Gender Equality Minister Marcy Yen and Liberal MP Ariel Kayabaga smile and shake hands with Kagame. A Global Affairs Canada news release advertised that “Canada strengthens bilateral relations with the President of Rwanda.”

Freedom House alleges Kagame is a dictator responsible for “surveillance, intimidation, torture, deportation, or alleged assassination of dissidents in exile,” while Human Rights Watch alleges the Kagame government arrests and intimidates political opponents.

Kagame has been the de facto ruler of Rwanda since 1994, when his Rwandan Patriotic Front overthrew the genocidal regime and created a functioning country that claimed democracy. However, the country has limited the role of media and political organizations, especially over the past decade.

The country also supports M23 rebels who have committed rapes, murders and war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Human Rights Watch said.

Desrosiers has co-authored the Westminster Foundation for Democracy report How To (Not) Engage With Authoritarian States, which examines in detail how Rwanda has embraced values ​​consistent with those of donor countries and has portrayed itself as a reliable recipient of Western aid.

“Rwanda has really developed an image of an innovative leader on the African continent, as opposed to the image of a dictator who is a formidable and oppressive figure,” she said.

Rwanda, for example, is often touted as having one of the highest rates of women’s participation in elected public office, police and other roles in the world, but these women cannot exercise their freedom of speech.

“It’s like giving women access to just theatrical status rather than meaningful substantive status,” she said.

“You can be an advocate when it comes to women, but what does it mean to be in a country where human rights, especially political rights, have no meaning?”

DeRussia argued that putting a leader like Kagame on the platform would only give the people the courage to continue to repress them, which would undermine democracies around the world.

The visit comes a year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would establish a High Commission in Kigali instead of having a small number of diplomats there reporting to all Kenyan diplomatic missions. The move is partly aimed at countering Russia’s growing influence on the continent, and Prime Minister Trudeau said he also wanted to help promote human rights in Rwanda.

In the 1960s, Canada maintained close ties with Rwanda, partly because France had played a more prominent role in Rwanda before the genocide, and because Canada contributed to the development of the country’s education sector.

However, Ottawa’s involvement has diminished, including the downgrade of Ottawa’s diplomatic presence under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

“With us leaving, we didn’t necessarily have as much of an ear and an eye on the scene as we had in the past,” Desrosier said.

“Our understanding of Rwanda tends to be somewhat flat. As a result, we get excited about glorious things like conferences that celebrate women,” she said, arguing that Canada’s approach to countries like Zimbabwe had the same problem.

Mr. DeRussia argued that Canada could try to improve understanding of the country through an expanded diplomatic presence.

He said having an overt influence in Rwanda would help undercut Rwanda’s usual reaction when Kagame was criticized, accusing the West of being condescending and colonial.

Ottawa is “increasingly reluctant to condemn problematic practices,” she says. “And Canada certainly doesn’t have enough presence in Africa to start saying what these regimes are doing.”

“It is important that Canadians encourage their governments to address these issues,” he added.

Canada downgraded its long-delayed policy plan for Africa from strategy to framework last year amid criticism that the Liberal Party did not take the region seriously.

For at least a year, the Liberals have said they are evaluating Canada’s diplomatic presence across the continent, what groups Canada should join and what goals it should present to African leaders.

The idea is to build on existing trade and aid programs and take a coordinated approach to the rapidly growing continent.

This report by the Canadian Press Agency was first published on July 21, 2023.

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