By Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Yana Gorokhovskaia and Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House’s research director for strategy and senior research director, respectively, argue that democratic countries’ naiveté makes them complicit in “transnational repression" as dictators target dissidents abroad.
Certainly, there are good cases of transnational repression: Russia’s poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London or, as Gorokhovskaia and Schenkkan cite, Belarusian dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich. They go wrong, though, when they fail to differentiate between peaceful dissidents and terrorists who peddle ethnic hate.
The Freedom House scholars embrace a Hollywood narrative of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier made famous by the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, but fumble the circumstances of his arrest and its reasons. On video, Rusesabagina called for violence. Wire transfers show his money transfers to transnational terrorist groups. Two years ago, I interviewed victims of one such attack not far from the Burundi border.
When Rusesabagina voluntarily boarded a private jet he thought would fly him to Burundi, he was seeking to convince Burundi’s president to reverse that nation’s decision to cease allowing Rusesabagina’s mercenaries from staging cross-border attacks. Celebrity and ambition do not give a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Their embrace of Laurent Munyakazi’s case is just as problematic. Yes, the U.S. returned Munyakazi to Rwanda to face genocide charges dating to the 1994 anti-Tutsi genocide. The same Justice Department has also deported 137 Nazi war criminals since the 1970s. A Rwandan court convicted him of planning and propagandizing genocide; he was Rwanda’s analog of Joseph Goebbels. Once back in Rwanda, Munyakazi doubled down on genocide denial.
That Freedom House scholars embrace his case is bizarre, even more so since tens of thousands of Hutus who also participated in the anti-Tutsi genocide faced justice, paid their dues, and reintegrated into Rwandan society, some in senior positions. By Freedom House standards, would the elimination of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani exile or Quds Force Chief Qassem Soleimani while visiting Baghdad also be examples of transnational repression?
The threat of continued genocide is real. When Rwandans pushed out Hutu génocidaires, the United Nations failed to disarm them. UN-administered refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo became engines for a new generation of terrorism. From Rwanda’s border, it is easy to see smoke from campfires of génocidaires just two miles away in Congo’s Virunga forest.
It is easy to misread societies from afar.
While diaspora activists live in the past, Rwandan society moves on. Genocide affects societies in ways Freedom House fails to appreciate. Because many Rwandans blame political polarization and partisan rhetoric for catalyzing genocide, Rwandans today prioritize consensus and turn their backs on those who live as if 1994 never occurred. This does not mean that Rwandans embrace Paul Kagame’s government without complaint: To tune into Rwandan radio talk shows any morning underscores that.
The broader problems are moral equivalence and rationalization of terrorism. When countries refuse to acknowledge genocide as Turkey does with the Armenians, or when they argue falsely that they are equal victims of it as Hutu extremists do with Rwanda or Turks do with Greeks, they limit their ability to become true democracies.
Rwanda has conquered corruption. It has acknowledged its past, and it has embraced national reconciliation. It is not a true democracy today, but Kagame has consciously built a foundation for it to become a stable one tomorrow. Rather than side with diaspora polemicists and ethnic chauvinists, a far better strategy for Western governments and NGOs would be to recognize political culture, fairly acknowledge democratic deficits, and then partner to consolidate success. Uncritically accepting cheap propaganda from those whose goals are mired in hate is a betrayal of the mission.
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