The Politics of French Complicity in the Rwandan Genocide

When my students and I put together the funding proposal for this trip, my role was to be as a research advisor but I also had my own research agenda in mind: the political and legal implications of a report released in 2008 by the Rwandan government that revealed significant complicity of France in the genocide: before, during and after. The Commission was headed by Rwanda’s Minister of Justice, Jean de Dieu Muyco, and was the culmination of an 18-month process of gathering documentary evidence and conducting eyewitness interviews. The Mucyo Report specifically named thirty-three officials serving in the government of François Mitterrand, including the late President himself and a former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, as directly responsible.

There was already quite a bit known about France’s role in helping many of the genocidaires escape to Zäire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during Opération Turquoise, which was ostensibly branded as a humanitarian intervention. Others writers and researchers of the genocide, such as Linda Malvern, have written about the extremely close ties between the government of Juvénal Habyarimana and France—bonds that became significantly stronger after the 1990 invasion of Rwanda by the RPF. After an urgent appeal from Habyarimana, France helped to train a then-shoddy Rwandan army which grew rapidly in size from 5,000 to 28,000 soldiers.

From 1990-1992, the Habyarimana regime purchased $6 million worth of military equipment from France. During the genocide, $13 million passed through the Banque Nationale de Paris to rearm the militias and the army. Human Rights Watch reported that five shipments of French arms came into Rwanda through Goma, Zäire, in May and June 1994. France had a significant number of advisors embedded within Rwandan military units. Even after French soldiers withdrew from Rwanda in 1993 as a result of the Arusha Accords, 40-70 French personnel remained in Rwanda to continue to “advise” the Rwandan military.

Adding to and deepening the case of French complicity was the Mucyo Commission’s evidence accusing those French military personnel, among other things, of actually carrying out killings, raping women, and providing logistical support to the militias, especially the Interahamwe, who organized the killings of Tutsis during the genocide.

The Commission’s details are astounding. While the Commission admitted that a great deal of this “direct complicity” evidence was based on fading memories and fuzzy recollections of eyewitnesses, much of it was dismissed, but there was enough of a pattern of recollection from certain parts of the country (especially from Kigali and the Zone Turquoise) to compel the Commission to make the charge of direct complicity.


Around the same time that the Mucyo Commission’s report was made public, I was studying the findings of the case that Bosnia had brought against Serbia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Serbia of complicity in the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica in July of 1995. The ICJ ruled that while Serbia was guilty of a “failure to prevent and punish” under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention, Serbia was not found guilty of complicity in the genocide itself, because there was not enough evidence of what they called “effective control” of Serbian officials over the activities of Bosnian militias that carried out the massacres.

The rule of precedent—stare decisis—is not a viable doctrine under international law. Cases are heard and decided on their merits alone. Nevertheless, using the standards that the ICJ applied in Bosnia v. Serbia, in which it applied an extremely narrow interpretation of “effective control,” the Muyco Commission’s report certainly contained much stronger evidence of “effective control” than Bosnia had against Serbia. This is especially true when one considers the mountains of evidence that clearly reveal how France helped to finance, train, and arm the Rwandan military and the Interahamwe. Thus, my initial research plan here was to interview Rwandan officials, including those on the Commission, about whether they planned to use these findings to mount a case against France for complicity under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

My thinking about this seemed pretty straight-forward: the fact-finding for the report was fairly extensive. The findings were compelling. The charges were clear. The report even went so far as to call for the indictment and trial of the thirty-some French officials and military officers named in the report. Clearly the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) process was out of the question, since the ICTR process was already beginning to wind down, and its mandate did not include non-Rwandan nationals. It seemed to me that the purpose of the Commission’s report and findings were to provide evidence for a case similar to Bosnia v. Serbia. Why else do it?

The truth is, there were already some signs suggesting that the there were purely political motivations, rather than legal ones, underscoring the Commission’s establishment. It may have been in direct response to a French judge’s ruling in 2006, calling for the arrest of Paul Kagame for shooting down Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 2004 (the downing of the plane was the spark that ignited the genocide), after which Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France.

Then, last month, there was a new twist. Rwanda and France agreed to restore diplomatic ties. Apparently talks toward this end have been underway since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. This was a big surprise to me. The anti-French sentiment here in Rwanda is palpable. There was the tit-for-tat over the Habyarimana question and the complicity question. Rwanda has clearly shifted its regional alignment away from francophone Central Africa and towards anglophone East Africa. The Rwandan government recently decided to eliminate French and adopt English in the public school curriculum. Then there is Rwanda’s successful bid to join the British Commonwealth—one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that are not former British colonies (incidentally, the announcement of Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth was made the same day as the French-Rwandan diplomatic rapprochement).

While the details of what Kigali and Paris agreed to in their negotiations for the resumption of diplomatic ties are unclear, one thing is probably most certain: that Rwanda agreed not to pursue the complicity question any further. One thing Kigali got in return, clearly, was a promise from France to be more aggressive in pursuing cases against Rwandan officials and others associated with the Habyarimana regime who have been living comfortably in France after fleeing there in 1994—especially Habyarimana’s widow, Agathe, who was “evacuated” out of Rwanda courtesy of the French army.


I mentioned earlier that I had intended to research the motivations of the Rwandan government in establishing the Mucyo Commission, thinking that the primary motivation might be along the lines of the Bosnia v. Serbia case at the ICJ—even if that move was motivated by the French “indictment” of Kagame for the assassination of Habyarimana. But even before I arrived, the lack of any “noise” following the Muyco Commission Report in the media (even the government “sponsored” media here in Rwanda) made me consider other motivations for the Commission’s work. It is my strong sense that this government is “done” with the genocide. The ICTR process is set to wind down. It is no longer hearing new cases, and is slated to wind up hearing and deciding on appeals in 2010. The gaçaça process of locally adjudicating third-class offenses during the genocide is slated to wind up in February.

It might be the case that when the government decided to establish the Mucyo Commission in 2006, it was considering mounting an international legal case. Had it done so, given the findings in Bosnia v. Serbia, the ICJ might very well have made a finding of complicity (this assumes, of course, that France would have submitted to the jurisdiction of the court). But it seems that in the intervening years since 2006, the Rwandan government appears to be signaling to the international community that it is time to move on. In their view, there are too many good things happening here, and to continue to drag on with the genocide, and the years it might take to finally settle these matters of justice, might be counter-productive. The Mucyo findings represent a kind of repository of blame. The government can say it did its work, it made its finding, but there are more important matters that need to be pursued. It is time to begin looking forward and not backward.

I have to admit that while this makes sense, as an advocate of international law, I am disappointed. Clearly the government of France was complicit in the genocide—even if it was not responsible for carrying out killings. The French government needs to answer for what it did here. France is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It has a special responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Maybe, for political and diplomatic reasons, an ICJ case is not the best place for that kind of justice to be achieved. But genocide is among the gravest of crimes under international law. Justice demands that France assume its responsibility.


~ by de cive on January 11, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Politics of French Complicity in the Rwandan Genocide”

  1. I wish that you could have been here for the Week of Mourning. I find it interesting how the government, on the international level, seems to have move on after the genocide- to forget, to reconcile, to move on. Yet, in the national media the genocide seems to be ever-present, as well as an all consuming wariness of “ethnicity.” The memory of the genocide is still very alive in Rwanda, and it has become very useful politically, especially for the current regime. As it is referred to “the genocide against the Tutsi,” is a very powerful tool that the government holds over the people.

  2. Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Taking the
    time and actual effort to create a top notch article…
    but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and never manage
    to get nearly anything done.

  3. You’re better than fine, you’re incredible. Love the way you see the world. N. Come on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: