Is the defendant’s dock at the International Criminal Court reserved for leaders of small and poor countries that defy the West? Not if Rwanda has its way. It wants to charge some of France’s most celebrated leaders of the 1990s as collaborators in genocide.
Last week the government of Rwanda issued a damning 500-page report documenting France’s participation in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This marks a remarkable turnaround in the deeply politicized world of human rights reporting. Usually, such reporting takes the form of governments or human rights groups based in the West condemning poor countries for having political or social systems that do not meet Western standards.
Now a wretched African country has turned the table.
All who study the Rwandan genocide, as I did while researching a book about that ill-fated country, come away stunned by what they learn about French support of mass murder. France was so eager to defend a client regime against English-speaking rebels that, as the new report asserts, it gave that regime “political, military, diplomatic and logistic support” and “directly assisted” its genocidal campaign.
The report names 33 present and former French politicians and military officers as conspirators, among them the late President François Mitterrand and other well-known figures like former foreign minister Alan Juppé and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.
The report, commissioned by the government and prepared by a panel that heard from more than 150 witnesses, is not only a devastating account of France’s eager participation in mass murder. It is also the most provocative example in modern history of a victimized nation pointing a credible finger of blame at the supposedly virtuous West.
France armed Rwanda’s murderous regime, sent soldiers to support it as the genocide was unfolding, and accepted some of its most heinous perpetrators as “refugees” after rebels forced them from power. Later, France helped the genocidaires regroup in the Congo and launch a savage cross-border campaign aimed at retaking power so they could complete their murderous work.
Even as the genocide was unfolding, reports of France’s support for it began appearing in French newspapers. French soldiers who arrived in Rwanda believing that they had come to protect victims soon realized that they were, in fact, protecting killers, and several communicated their disgust to French journalists.
In 1995, President Jacques Chirac of France made a remarkably honest confession of his nation’s guilt. “France … delivered protected people to their horrors. These dark hours have sullied our history forever and are an insult to our past and our traditions.”
Unfortunately Chirac was not speaking about Rwanda, but about France’s delivery of French Jews to the Nazi murder machine during World War II. His statement suggests that it takes nations at least half a century before they can apologize for their misdeeds. Doctors Without Borders declared in 1998 that it was “high time the French government broke its traditional silence on its shameful role in the genocide.”
Foreign Minister Juppé responded indignantly that no one could question the “good intentions of our humanitarian intervention of that era,” and that the government would not consent to “investigating an action we should be proud of.”
Parliament eventually did convene an investigation, but it predictably absolved France of all guilt.
France, though, has never forgiven the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, for deposing a French-backed regime and pulling Rwanda out of the Francophonie. In 2006 a French judge charged Kagame with assassinating his predecessor; Rwanda responded by breaking diplomatic relations with France.
The report last week is another volley in what has become one of the world’s most bitter diplomatic battles.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry rejected the Rwandan report as “unacceptable.” That was a mistake. The report should be an occasion for French leaders to reflect on their country’s history in ways Western nations seldom do. Perhaps they could even break with the longstanding pattern of denial that has shaped so much of modern history.
Like all countries, France is built on national myths. If it can admit the evil that has pervaded its role in Africa, perhaps other countries could follow by confronting the sins of their past. That would be an admission that people who, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves” are not the only ones guilty of the 20th century’s great crimes.
Stephen Kinzer is author of “A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It.”
By Stephen Kinzer
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company