May 11, 2015
Rwanda: Current Issues
Figure 1. Rwanda Key Facts
Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda
has become known for its rapid development and security
gains since the devastating 1994 genocide, in which an
estimated 800,000 people were killed. The minority ethnic
Tutsi community was targeted in the genocide, along with
politically moderate members of the Hutu majority, in a
state-backed extermination campaign. The Tutsi-led
Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in 1994 and
ended the genocide. RPF efforts to improve health systems,
the economy, and gender equality have received substantial
support from foreign donors, including the United States.
Development indicators have improved markedly in the
past two decades, but poverty remains widespread. While
praising Rwanda’s progress, U.S. officials have also
criticized its domestic constraints on political and civil
freedoms and the government’s recent history of backing
rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
By investing in its people, Rwanda is building a strong
foundation for peace and prosperity in the years to
come. Secretary of State John Kerry, July 2, 2014.
President Kagame has been in office since 2000, and
previously served as Vice President and Defense Minister
in post-genocide transitional regimes. He last won
reelection with 93% of votes in 2010. The election was
peaceful and well organized, but observers—including
Obama Administration officials—expressed concerns about
media restrictions, the expulsion of an international human
rights researcher prior to the vote, and prohibitions on
opposition party participation. Analysts debate whether
Kagame may seek to remain in office past 2017, when his
current term ends and he faces constitutional term limits.
Politics and Security
The RPF dominates state institutions, and Kagame appears
to face no serious internal challenger. Independent
opposition parties, media outlets, and civil society groups
are few in number and reportedly operate with difficulty.
Public criticism of the RPF’s overarching policies or
legitimacy is not tolerated; nor is public discussion of
ethnic identity. Critics assert that the government has used
laws criminalizing “genocide ideology” and “divisionism,”
along with national security provisions, to suppress dissent,
to justify prosecutions of journalists and opposition figures,
and to limit the ability of human rights groups to report on
the country. Rwandan officials reject allegations of abusing
human rights, while often arguing that some restrictions are
needed to prevent the return of ethnic violence and
asserting that the country is gradually liberalizing.
The State Department’s most recent human rights report
states that one of Rwanda’s “most important human rights
problems” is “the government’s targeting of political
opponents and human rights advocates for harassment,
arrest, and abuse.” Some observers question whether
constraints on freedom of expression and political activity
may threaten stability by depriving opponents of peaceful
avenues for activism.
Some RPF defectors and other regime opponents have
attempted to organize outside the country. Human rights
organizations accuse the government of targeting exiled
dissidents for assassination, which the government denies.
In early 2014, a top RPF defector—a former head of
external intelligence who had become active in a diaspora
opposition movement known as the Rwanda National
Congress (RNC)—was murdered in South Africa. President
Kagame said in a press interview that “Rwanda did not kill
this person... but I add that, I actually wish Rwanda did it.”
He also reportedly stated in public remarks that “whoever
betrays the country will pay the price.” Another leading
RNC figure, former army chief of staff General Kayumba
Nyamwasa, was the victim of an armed attack in 2010
while living in South Africa. In 2014, a South African court
convicted two Rwandans and two Tanzanians in the attack,
and the judge stated that he believed the incident was
Rwanda’s military is considered to be among the most
effective in Africa. Rwandan peacekeepers have
participated in multiple U.N. and African-led peacekeeping
operations, and are generally reported to be disciplined and
committed. In 2015, however, news reports implicated
Rwandan soldiers serving in Mali in the shooting of
protesters during a violent anti-U.N. demonstration.
Rwanda reportedly withdrew the units involved.
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Rwanda: Current Issues
Rwanda asserts that it faces a national security threat from
the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda
(FDLR), a DRC-based militia founded by Hutu extremists
involved in the Rwandan genocide. The FDLR and its
leaders are under United Nations (U.N.) and U.S. sanctions.
The FDLR is also nominally the target of DRC military
operations, and the U.N. peacekeeping operation in DRC is
authorized to disarm it. However, previous military
operations have failed to defeat the group. In 2014, Human
Rights Watch reported that Rwanda had held some alleged
FDLR collaborators in unacknowledged detention centers
prior to charging them in court.
Role in Democratic Republic of Congo
Rwanda has security, political, and economic interests in its
larger and chronically unstable neighbor. It has deployed its
military into DRC on several occasions since the 1990s, and
has reportedly backed several armed rebellions there. At
times, Rwandan and DRC troops have also cooperated in
operations to counter militia groups in DRC. While denying
specific allegations of backing DRC rebel groups, Rwandan
officials often voice potential justifications for such actions.
They contend that DRC security forces have failed to rein
in groups, such as the FDLR, that threaten Rwanda—and
have at times collaborated with them. Officials also
sometimes point to discrimination and violence targeting
ethnic communities of Rwandan origin in DRC, implying
that they may require protection. Some analysts contend
that economic incentives are another factor in Rwanda’s
involvement in DRC, and that powerful Rwandans have
profited from resource smuggling there.
U.S. officials publicly criticized Rwanda in 2012 and 2013
for providing support to a DRC-based armed group known
as the M23. Rwandan officials denied the allegations, and
instead blamed instability on DRC’s institutional
dysfunctions and a lack of political will to confront security
challenges. In late 2013, the DRC military, backed by U.N.
peacekeeping troops, defeated the M23. Earlier that year,
Rwanda signed onto a U.N.-backed regional peace
“framework accord” that prohibited neighboring states from
involvement in conflicts in DRC. Widespread insecurity
persists in eastern DRC, but there have been fewer reports
of direct Rwandan involvement.
Donor aid, political stability, and pro-investor policies have
contributed to economic growth averaging nearly 8% per
year over the past decade. Key foreign exchange earners
include a small but growing mining sector, tourism, and
exports of coffee and tea. Still, about 90% of Rwandans
remain engaged in agriculture, many for subsistence, and
about 45% reportedly live below the poverty line. Rwanda
has the highest population density in continental Africa,
which threatens the sustainability of subsistence farming.
The government is undertaking ambitious efforts to
transform the economy into one that is services-oriented, to
lower birth rates, and to develop domestic sources of
energy, with the goal of making Rwanda a middle-income
country by 2020. Regional economic integration backed by
the East African Community (EAC) could boost foreign
investment and trade, but political differences among EAC
members have hindered progress.
Donor aid is substantial, and Rwanda qualified for
international debt relief in 2005. However, in 2012, some
donors reduced or redirected funding due to Rwanda’s role
in the M23 crisis. In response, Rwanda sought new
domestic and private-sector sources of finance, creating a
national “solidarity” fund, which solicits donations, and
issuing international bonds.
U.S. Policy and Aid
The United States and Rwanda have cultivated close ties
since the late 1990s, although in recent years the Obama
Administration and some Members of Congress have
expressed concerns about Rwanda’s domestic and regional
policies. As noted above, the Administration openly
criticized Rwanda’s role in the M23 insurgency in DRC.
Congress has also enacted restrictions on certain types of
U.S. military aid to Rwanda through foreign aid
appropriations measures since FY2010. Previously, U.S.
officials had largely avoided public censure of Rwanda.
U.S. bilateral aid to Rwanda grew significantly from $39
million appropriated in FY2003 to $188 million in FY2014.
In part, this rise reflected overall trends in U.S. aid to
Africa, which increased substantially during the same
period, particularly for health programs. It also reflected a
widely-held view that Rwanda is a leader in achieving
donor-assisted development outcomes. U.S. aid to Rwanda
is largely focused on health, food security, and other
socioeconomic goals, along with support for Rwanda’s
participation in international peacekeeping operations. The
Administration requested $171 million in bilateral aid for
Rwanda in FY2015, a slight decrease compared to FY2014,
of which 72% would be for health assistance. The
Administration has requested $161 million for FY2016.
U.S. support for Rwandan peacekeepers is provided
separately from these bilateral aid allocations, and includes
training, equipment, and other assistance.
In 2012 and 2013, legislation enacted by Congress resulted
in restrictions on some types of U.S. military aid for
Rwanda. The FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act
(P.L. 112-74) prohibited Foreign Military Financing (FMF)
if Rwanda was found to be providing support to DRC-based
armed groups. The Administration also applied a security
assistance prohibition contained in the Child Soldiers
Prevention Act (P.L. 110-457, as amended) in connection
with Rwanda’s support for the M23, which reportedly used
child soldiers. Both provisions exempted most aid related to
peacekeeping support. The Administration lifted both
restrictions in 2014, citing the end of the M23 rebellion.
The FY2015 Consolidated and Further Appropriations Act
(P.L. 113-235) prohibits FMF for Rwanda, except for
certain purposes (including peacekeeping), unless the
Secretary of State certifies that Rwanda is “implementing a
policy to cease political, military and/or financial support”
for armed groups in DRC.
Alexis Arieff, email@example.com, 7-2459
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