Africa We Want

Did ‘Hotel Rwanda’’s Paul Rusesabagina Just Sabotage Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace?

Paul Rusesabagina came to fame two decades ago as the hero in the movie Hotel Rwanda. While reality was not as Hollywood depicted, fame sparked first ambition and then, failing to gain support in Rwanda, bitterness. By Michael Rubin, Senior Fellow, AEIdeas

Rusesabagina ready to betray his commitments in Rwanda

Rusesabagina spoke about the necessity to overthrow the Rwandan government by any means necessary and then acted on it, wiring money to a terrorist group. Under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the State Department’s top goals in Africa was to convince Burundi, the continent’s poorest country, to cease allowing cross-border insurgents to use its territory. He succeeded. Rusesabagina fumed.

In June 2020, Évariste Ndayishimiye became president of Burundi. Rusesabagina sought to convince him to cease stopping the terrorists Rusesabagina funded. After his capture, Rusesabagina’s story that he was taking a private jet to Burundi to talk to a church never made sense given Burundi’s poverty and the expense of international private charters.

After the plane diverted to Rwanda, a deception international law allows, Rwandan forces arrested Rusesabagina and tried him for crimes relating to terrorist attacks in southern Rwanda. The evidence was overwhelming. Behind the scenes, the State Department believed it. Rusesabagina’s supporters lobbied, Hollywood donors rallied, image trumped truth, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan intervened.

Negotiations were tough. Rusesabagina was a Belgian citizen. Belgian police certified the validity of evidence against him. Despite claims to the contrary, his trial was transparent and the Rwandans treated him well in prison. Privately, State Department officials acknowledged no evidence supported his adopted daughters’ claims of mistreatment.

Negotiators had to address not only Rusesabagina, but also his co-conspirators as it would be an affront to pardon one among many involved in the crime. Under Rwandan law, criminals can seek amnesty if they show contrition. Sullivan, Rusesabagina’s lawyers, and the former hotelier himself agreed he would. Rusesabagina penned a letter, seeking clemency, and acknowledging his calls to and support for violence and terrorism.

He promised, “If I am granted a pardon and released, I understand fully that I will spend the remainder of my days in the United States in quiet reflection. I can assure you through this letter that I hold no personal or political ambitions otherwise. I will leave questions regarding Rwandan politics behind me.”

That lasted two months. Rusesabagina’s downfall has always been addiction to limelight. In late June, the New York Times published a lengthy interview in which Rusesabagina said, “‘They expected me to be silent. To be a good guy and behave . . . . No one can silence me that easily.”

The issue was never Rusesabagina’s silence but rather his terrorism sponsorship. While Rusesabagina’s supporters parry by criticizing Rwandan President Paul Kagame, these complaints are immaterial to his case: They do not justify the terror attack on Nyabimata that killed nine civilians.

Sullivan and Blinken have a problem. They gave their word to Rwanda to achieve a short-term goal and relieve donor pressure. Should they not respond to the deal’s violation, for example by deporting Rusesabagina to Belgium, then they signal that the agreements they broker are meaningless.

Sullivan and Blinken now turn their efforts to peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The chief sticking point is Armenian insistence that Azerbaijan guarantees the rights and safety of the ancient Christian community in Nagorno-Karabakh and their cultural heritage.

Rwanda may be a long way from Armenia, but the trauma of genocide links the two countries. Their ministers pay homage at each other’s memorials. The rhetoric in which Azerbaijan now engages parallels the genocide minimization if not denial that Hutu génocidaires and Rusesabagina himself engage.

As Armenians seek American guarantees, they should recognize the cynicism with which Sullivan and Blinken conduct diplomacy. They should not gamble on the sanctity of any agreement Blinken negotiates or Sullivan guarantees, for neither keeps promises. For the government of Armenia or residents of Nagorno-Karabakh to trust either man now would be suicide.

Author: MANZI
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