A génocidaire in the dock: is France ready to face its responsibilities?

Here is an article I originally published in French in the Huffington Post but that I have translated for this blog


Twenty years after the tragedy, is France finally ready to confront its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide?

Two weeks ago, the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa opened in Paris under much media scrutiny. Captain in the Rwandan gendarmerie until a road accident in 1986, Simbikangwa is accused of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. Although he minimizes his role, Simbikangwa was a member of the « akazu », the inner circle of Hutu power who organized the extermination of almost one million Tutsi and Hutu moderates. On the eve of the genocide, Simbikangwa was the director of the intelligence services in Kigali and allegedly armed militias who filtered out Tutsis at roadblocks, and encouraged them to kill. There is ample evidence against him and several witnesses will testify in court. 

Simbikangwa is not the first génocidaires to face justice but this trial is historical because, for the first time, it occurs in France, a country that has long been accused of serving as a safe haven for génocidaires. Indeed, Simbikangwa had found refuge on the French overseas département of Mayotte before he was arrested in 2008. He is not the only one. Twenty-seven alleged culprits have rebuilt their lives in France, sometimes as working as doctors or pastors. Not one of them has ever faced justice – until today.

Why the heavy silence?

In reality, it is the French political class of the era who is at risk of being in the dock. Seeing how talkative Simbikangwa is, his trial will shed light on the way the genocide was planned and thus perhaps on the ambiguous relationship between Paris and Kigali in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, the French government then headed by François Mittérand was one of Kigali’s closest allies. 

In October 1990, when a rebel movement called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked the Rwandan army (FAR), France came to the help of the government in Kigali because it argued that Rwanda was the victim of an external aggression (France omitted to say that the RPF was mainly composed of Rwandan Tutsi who had found refuge in Uganda and whom the Hutu government in Kigali did not want back). In the end, Paris financially and military assisted an authoritarian regime that maintained mono-ethnic policies and was planning a genocide.

Following the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April 1994, the well-planned genocide began within a few hours. Instead of helping the Tutsi, France recognized the Hutu interim government responsible for ongoing massacres and even evacuated some of Habyarimana’s entourage and other local notables. Several of them were even received at the Elysée shortly after. At the end of June, when France finally deployed a humanitarian operation (Operation Turquoise) in order to protect the Tutsi, French soldiers failed to systematically disarm militias and did not arrest perpetrators of the massacres, and certainly not the main authors. Many of génocidaires managed to escape to the Congo (then Zaire).

The absence of political will to bring perpetrators to justice, condemned by the European Human Rights Court in 2004, is likely caused by a fear that France’s role may soon be fully out in the open. Yes, the genocide was planned and committed by Rwandans but as the main ally Paris was in a good position to prevent the killings instead of providing resources to what was to become a genocidal regime. The situation was complex, but French leaders had been warned about the Hutu regime’s plans. Instead, like the rest of the international community, they refused to listen and turned their back on the Tutsi community. Graver still, once the massacres started France took two months to act and when it did, the intervention had contradictory effects. France must therefore assume part of the responsibility.

Simbikangwa’s trial is an important step for the victims who are finally being recognized. It is also a victory for the human rights activists, journalists and academics who have been fighting to bring perpetrators to justice. However, there is still a long way to go. In a recent interview, Alain Ngirinshut, a genocide survivor and vice-president of an association for victims, explained that the Paris city hall still refuses to establish a proper memorial for the victims of the genocide. Twenty years after the massacres, the duty of remembrance remains a difficult task to do.