Rwanda: Human Rights Should Be Priority on Blinken Trip 22

US Should Raise Human Rights Concerns, Abuse by M23

Human Rights Should Be Priority on Blinken Trip

(Washington) – As U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken plans to visit Rwanda from August 10-12, 2022, fears grow that the M23 armed group is gaining renewed Rwandan support for abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch today Say. Blinken will also visit Congo, where the M23 has expanded its control in the eastern province of North Kivu, targeting civilians for summary killings.

The visit provided an opportunity to condemn these attacks, including war crimes, and any well-documented support from Rwanda for making the abuse possible. The visit should also be used to highlight systemic human rights violations, including the repression of opponents and civil society, both inside and outside Rwanda. Minister Blinken should urge authorities to release critics and opponents jailed for exercising fundamental rights.

“Secretary Blinken’s trip to Rwanda and Congo should tell some hard truths,” said Lewis March, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to address Rwanda’s poor human rights record has emboldened its officials to continue their violence, even beyond its borders.”

Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), has for years waged a brutal campaign against real and perceived critics of the government. Recently, prominent critics, including internet bloggers, have been arrested and threatened.

Some recently said they were tortured in custody. Authorities rarely conduct credible investigations into enforced disappearances or suspicious deaths of opponents. Arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in unofficial detention facilities is common, especially during high-profile visits or large international events such as the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Blinken will bring the case of Paul Rusesabagina, who was arrested and detained in August 2020 in a well-documented pattern of abuse of critics and has serious concerns about the politicization of the Rwandan judiciary. Rusesabagina, who is now a Belgian citizen, lived in the United States when she traveled from the United States to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

He was forcibly disappeared until the Rwanda Bureau of Investigation announced that Rusesabagina was being held in Kigali. Human Rights Watch documented repeated due process and fair trial violations throughout Rusesabagina’s trial, which resulted in lengthy sentences.

Blinken should also bring the cases of journalists, commentators and opposition activists who have been jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of association and expression. Aimable Karasira, a detained commentator popular on YouTube, told a judge on May 30 that he was tortured in custody and denied medical treatment.

In a court appearance on July 7, he said he was punished and beaten again for revealing his treatment in custody.

Attacks and threats against Rwandan refugees living abroad, including in Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya, continued unabated. The victims are often political opponents or critics of the Rwandan government or President Paul Kagame.

Commentators, journalists, opposition activists and others who publish current affairs and criticize public policy in Rwanda have been forcibly disappeared, and some have died under suspicious circumstances.

The Rwandan government has been unable to effectively investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, or ensure accountability. In many of these cases, evidence points to the involvement of state security forces. This has created a climate of fear and widespread impunity among the population.

In those cases, prominent activist and singer Kizito Mihigo died suspiciously in police custody, despite calls from international partners including Tibor Nagy, then the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Innocent Bahati, a popular poet who published works on YouTube focusing on social and human rights issues, disappeared under suspicious circumstances on February 7, 2021, and remains unaccounted for. Authorities have given vague and unsubstantiated claims that he has left the country.

Human Rights Watch said Blinken should ask for specific updates on the investigation and any steps authorities have taken to bring justice in these cases. The United States should urgently signal that government repression and abuse in Rwanda and beyond will have consequences.

The M23 was originally made up of Congolese army soldiers who participated in the rebellion in early 2012. The soldiers were former rebels of the Rwandan-backed armed group CNDP. Directly supported by the Rwandan army deployed to eastern Congo, the M23 committed extensive war crimes and captured much of North Kivu province during 2012.

U.N. investigators at the time also said Ugandan army commanders had sent troops and weapons to bolster some M23 operations and to assist the group in recruiting personnel. After the M23 briefly captured Goma in 2013, UN-backed Congolese government forces forced the M23 back to Rwanda and Uganda. Congolese authorities issued an arrest warrant in 2013 for the UN-sanctioned M23 senior commander. Rwanda and Uganda have never acted on these extradition requests.

As Congo failed to demobilize the group over the past decade, M23 began recruiting and rebuilding its ranks in 2021. Since May, the M23 has shown its ability to outperform the UN-backed Congolese forces. UN sources and a senior Congolese official told Human Rights Watch that the group is receiving ongoing external assistance.

On June 14, the U.S. embassy in Congo said it was “extremely concerned by the recent fighting in eastern [Congo] and the reported presence of Rwandan troops on [Congo] territory.” The implementation of its sanctions regime, in its June report, confirmed the presence of men in Rwandan military uniforms in the M23 refugee camp.

On August 4, the media reported that a UN panel report had found “hard evidence” of Rwandan troops fighting alongside and providing other support to the M23. The Rwandan government has repeatedly denied supporting the M23.

Human Rights Watch said that, as in 2012, the M23 was committing war crimes against civilians. Witnesses described brief killings of at least 29 people, including children, in June and July 2022. The U.S. should credibly report to Rwanda that it once again supports M23 abuses in eastern Congo.

Minister Blinken should publicly condemn the M23 attack in the strongest terms and warn that any support by Rwanda for such abuse by the M23 will have consequences.

Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on July 20 that he would suspend U.S. security assistance to Rwanda in Congress due to concerns about Rwanda’s human rights record and its role in the Congolese conflict. In a letter to Blinken, Menendez called for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Rwanda.

“M23 thrives on a cycle of violence driven by impunity and violation of basic human rights,” March said. “Minister Blinken should not cover up abuse in Rwanda and Congo, but should put human rights first during his visit.”

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Human Rights Should Be Priority on Blinken Trip
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