The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once a U.S. darling, Rwanda’s Kagame hears concerns amid Blinken visit

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali on Aug. 11. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters)

KIGALI, Rwanda — Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Rwanda’s president Thursday to end support for rebels in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and halt repression of critics of his longtime rule, warning of mounting U.S. opposition to a leader who once ranked among America’s preferred partners in Africa.

Blinken’s visit to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, the final destination on a trip aimed at touting U.S.-African partnerships as China and Russia make inroads on the continent, marks the Biden administration’s highest-level engagement with President Paul Kagame to date.

The stop was a sign of U.S. concern about a resurgence in the long-running conflict in the eastern region of Congo, where U.S. and U.N. officials say Rwanda’s military is supporting M23 rebels who are accused of attacking civilians.

Speaking to reporters after talks with Kagame at his lush presidential compound, Blinken said he raised similar concerns about the eastern Congo conflict with the Rwandan leader as he had with Congo President Félix Tshisekedi during a visit this week to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

Violence has flared anew since 2021 in eastern Congo’s long-running conflict as the M23 has regained strength and, at times, clashed with U.N.-backed Congolese forces. In 2012, President Barack Obama called Kagame to urge him to cease backing armed groups across the Congolese border. Advocates say that the activities of the group, one of a score of armed factions in the remote region, abated after peace accords in 2013 but that it was never fully disarmed.

Now, according to a recent report from a U.N. group of experts, the M23 is being supported anew by Rwanda’s military.

“Any support or cooperation with any armed group in the eastern DRC endangers local communities and regional stability, and every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others,” Blinken said. “We’ve seen where the failure to respect these principles can lead,” he added, referencing the estimated 5 million casualties in two decades of intermittent conflict.

The talks appeared to have resulted in an impasse on core areas of disagreement between two countries otherwise eager for partnership. Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, responded to Blinken’s remarks by insisting that his government’s actions against dissidents or opponents were justified, and pointed to Congolese support for a different rebel group in Congo as a chief driver of conflict in the region.

“Rwanda is not the cause of long-standing instability in the eastern DRC,” Biruta said.

After Blinken’s talks, U.S. officials, who spoke to journalists on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions, pointed to the fact that Tshisekedi and Kagame had agreed to communicate directly rather than through intermediaries as a step forward. They expressed hope that, despite Rwanda’s denials of support for the M23, a regional peace initiative would advance.

Blinken and Rwandan leaders also discussed the presence of Rwandan soldiers in the eastern DRC, the officials said.

Kagame, who has led Rwanda since 2000, was long seen as a model African leader for his steps to modernize Rwanda, improve its economy and bring stability after the 1994 genocide. In recent years, he has faced mounting criticism over his treatment of dissidents, journalists and other critics, including allegedly targeting them beyond Rwanda’s borders in violent attacks in South Africa and other nations.

Kagame’s actions are coming under increased congressional scrutiny. In a letter to Blinken last month, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he would put a hold on security aid to Rwanda unless the government improves its track record on Congo and treatment of opponents.

Of particular concern in Washington is the imprisonment of Paul Rusesabagina, a U.S. resident and high-profile Kagame critic whose role in sheltering more than a thousand civilians during the genocide was portrayed in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”

Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen, was sentenced by a Rwandan court last year to 25 years in prison for forming a terrorist group. A high-profile critic of Kagame, he was brought to Rwanda in 2020 during a visit to Dubai. His lawyers said he was told he would be traveling to Burundi but instead was flown to Rwanda.

The State Department this year determined that Rusesabagina was “wrongfully detained.”

Blinken made reference to the “Khashoggi ban,” a law passed after the 2018 killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents. The law allows the U.S. government to impose travel bans on those believed to be involved in transnational targeting of dissidents.

“Criminalization of some individuals’ participation in politics, the harassment of those who express opposition to the current government, we believe undermine future peace, stability, and success — success which has already been extraordinary in the case of Rwanda for the last 20 plus years, but which will not reach its full potential” if repression occurs, Blinken said.

Repeating earlier government statements indicating little willingness to reconsider Rusesabagina’s case, Biruta said the trial had been lawful. “We would request our partners to respect Rwanda’s sovereignty, Rwanda’s laws and its institutions,” he said.

Rusesabagina’s daughter, Anaise Kanimba, said her family appreciated that Blinken had raised Rusesabagina’s case. She warned that her father, 68, was not receiving needed medical attention.

“We trust that if the U.S. relationship with Rwanda is strong enough to be deserving of financial and trusted cooperation, then it is strong enough to push for the release of our father on humanitarian grounds,” she said in a statement.

Lewis Mudge, central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the visit was a “missed opportunity” to press Rwanda more strongly on rights abuses.

“It is clear that failing to address Rwanda’s abysmal human rights record over the last two decades has emboldened its officials to continue to commit abuse, even beyond its borders,” he said.