Senator threatens to withhold Rwanda aid for targeting US residents, supporting Congo rebels

Rwandan President Paul Kagame addresses the 73rd United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on September 25, 2018, in New York City.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame addresses the 73rd United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on September 25, 2018, in New York City. | Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, D-N.J., urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to review the millions of dollars in aid the United States sends to Rwanda due to the Kagame government's reported targeting of American residents and alleged support for an armed rebel group killing civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

In a letter sent last Wednesday, Menendez urged Blinken to undertake a "comprehensive review" of the department's policies on Rwanda and reconsider the types of assistance the U.S. provides to the Central African country that experienced a genocide in 1994.

Until such a review takes place, Menendez wrote that he would place a hold on all security assistance, beginning with the several million dollars of support for the Rwandan military. 

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According to the letter, the U.S. allocated more than $147 million in foreign assistance to Rwanda in 2021, making the U.S. Rwanda's largest bilateral donor. 

Menendez highlighted Rwanda's participation in "destabilizing actions" in Central Africa. He noted that the country is credibly accused of supporting M23 (March 23 movement) rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sending soldiers across the border. 

"As you recall, in the late 1990s Rwanda and Uganda invaded DRC, triggering a regional war that according to the International Rescue Committee, resulted in as many as 5.4 million deaths from 1998 to 2007 due conflict and resulting humanitarian crisis," he wrote. 

Menendez fears that U.S. support for the Rwandan military while it is allegedly deployed in DRC and supporting the armed M23 group would send "a troubling signal that the U.S. tacitly approves of such actions." The Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame has denied allegations that it has sent troops to eastern DRC and is supporting M23 militants. 

The violence in DRC stems from a massive refugee crisis and spillover from the Rwanda genocide against the Tutsis, in which over 800,000 were killed in 1994. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hutu génocidaires fled to eastern DRC and formed armed groups opposing Tutsi, and other opportunistic rebel groups were launched. 

From 1998 to 2003, government forces fought rebels backed by Rwanda in the Second Congo War. Although a peace deal was struck in 2002 and a transitional government was formed in 2003, violence has continued. One of the most prominent rebel groups is the M23, which is predominantly made up of ethnic Tutsis with the alleged backing of the Rwanda government. 

Menendez reminded Blinken that Rwanda sought to "undermine" DRC again by supporting M23 rebels who captured Goma in 2012. The action resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of more than 200,000 people, according to the United Nations

Another concern Menendez addressed involved accusations that Rwanda is silencing journalists, political opponents and dissidents, stating that Kagame's efforts to do so are "well known."

Citing a Human Rights Watch report, Menendez stated that since 2019 alone, 32 journalists, internet commentators and opposition activists have been killed, jailed or disappeared. 

Kagame has been in office since 2000. In 2015, Rwanda passed changes to its constitution extending term limits so that Kagame can possibly remain in office. 

The senator also cited worrying reports that Kagame intends to target critics in Europe and the United States, citing the detention of lawful permanent U.S. resident Paul Rusesabagina, better known as the hotel manager portrayed in the movie "Hotel Rwanda," who helped shelter refugees during the genocide. 

In 2020, Rusesabagina was lured onto a charter flight and flown to Rwanda without his knowledge and arrested. He was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Rusesabagina, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005, is classified by the U.S. government as a wrongful detainee. 

The senator suggested elevating the travel advisory for Rwanda, currently at "Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions," to "Level 3: Reconsider Travel," citing Rwanda's pattern of targeting American residents as the reason. 

"Not only would Rwanda be flouting U.S. laws by targeting dissidents inside the United States, Rwanda appears to be the only foreign government in the world that is both wrongfully detaining an American resident and seen by the United States as a partner and ally," Menendez wrote. 

"The Rwandan government is also credibly accused of targeting dissidents living outside Rwanda," Menendez added. "Outspoken critics of Kagame have been assassinated in South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, and Kenya." 

The support for M23 and targeting of U.S. residents is why the letter recommends sending Rwandan military or government officials participating in International Military Education and Training programs or other military assistance programs in the U.S. back to Rwanda. 

"The United States cannot support Rwandan contributions to peacekeeping in some parts of Africa while looking the other way as Rwanda foments rebellion and violence in other parts of the continent," Menendez wrote. 

"I look forward to working with you to ensure U.S. policy reflects the values of the United States and of the Biden administration."

As Human Rights Watch reported, the M23 armed group has killed at least 29 civilians since mid-June. The rebel force believed to have been inactive for a decade is reportedly receiving support for its operations in the North Kivu province from Rwanda. 

"Since the M23 took control of several towns and villages in North Kivu in June, they've committed the same kind of horrific abuses against civilians that we've documented in the past," Thomas Fessey, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch, said. 

"The government's failure to hold M23 commanders accountable for war crimes committed years ago is enabling them and their new recruits to commit abuses today." 

Kagame has fostered a great relationship with popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California. In 2019, Warren received criticism after Kagame spoke at Saddleback Church about Rwanda's transformation since the 1994 genocide. Warren has been friends with Kagame for over a decade. 

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