On March 26th, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda spoke at the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. During his three-minute speech he became the first African head of state to affirm Israel’s “right to exist and thrive,” saying that “without question, Rwanda is a friend of Israel.”
Kagame recalled Rwanda’s own experience with genocide, saying, “until all ideologies which justify killing as a particular duty are defeated, our world is not truly safe. Not for us, not for anyone.”
Frank Sesno of CNN later interviewed Kagame about Rwanda-Israel relations. When speaking about the Rwandan Security Council’s abstention on the question of Palestinian statehood, Kagame said the abstention had two purposes. In Rwanda’s experience, he explained, it is harmful to have a solution to an issue imposed upon a country by outsiders who have not consulted the parties involved. Furthermore, “just because you are a friend of Israel, does not mean you are the enemy of someone else,” he said. Kagame’s eagerness to act as an arbiter indicated that Kagame sees Rwanda as not just an ally to Israel but as a negotiation broker.
While Rwanda and Israel do ally because of shared experiences with genocide, this seemingly benign relationship should be firmly opposed. Israel claims a unique place in global politics as an arbiter of morality and justice. While it may be necessary for Israel to compromise with less than savory monarchies in its neighborhood, allying with Rwanda brings no immediate security benefits. What the alliance does bring for Israel is illegitimacy with regards to the country’s moral authority.
In 2015, President Kagame amended the constitution—in anticipation of the August 2017 elections—such that he could run for a third term. He furthermore uses his presidential power to limit the opposition and even civil society, effectively turning Rwanda into a one-party state. The Rwandan government controls the media and arrests journalists who question the authorities’ narrative. In a 2016 case, retired Sergeant Francois Kabayiza alleged he was tortured while in police custody. The courts ignored these allegations and, in violation of Rwandan law, refused to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that evidence against him was obtained without the use of torture.
Rwanda is actively violating its citizens’ rights and Israel may be complicit. Refugees from Burundi travel to Rwanda but are coerced into joining the Rwandan military upon arrival. Despite Rwanda’s verified human rights abuses, specifically of refugees, Israel is now deporting Eritrean and Sudanese refugees (Netanyahu refers to these people as “job seekers”) to Rwanda. It is unthinkably inhumane for Israel to deport refugees from verified and, in Sudan’s case, genocidal dictatorships to yet another nation which withholds from its citizens the rights to think freely and participate in governance.
Rwanda is an unapologetically repressive one-party state, and any positive association with such a nation only erodes Israel’s global credibility.