France bears ‘overwhelming responsibilities’ over Rwanda genocide

Report concludes there was ‘failure’ on the part of France over the genocide that saw about 800,000 people slaughtered in 1994.

Human skulls are seen in this February 2004 file picture on the floor of the Ntarama church in Rwanda where several hundred people were slaughtered during the tiny central African country''s 1994 genoc
The genocide began after Rwanda's Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down [File: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters]

France bears “overwhelming responsibilities” over the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and was “blind” to preparations for the massacres, a report by historians said on Friday but added there was no evidence Paris was complicit in the killings.

A historical commission set up by President Emmanuel Macron concluded there had been a “failure” on the part of France under former leader Francois Mitterrand over the genocide that saw about 800,000 people slaughtered, mainly from the ethnic Tutsi minority.

Historian Vincent Duclert, who headed the commission, handed over the damning report to Macron at the Elysee Palace after years of accusations that France did not do enough to halt the killings and was even complicit in the crimes.

The genocide between April and July of 1994 began after Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, with whom Paris had cultivated close ties, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali on April 6.

Hundreds of skulls of victims of the Rwandan genocide rest in a memorial outside a church in Ntarama, south of Kigali [File: Armando Franca/AP]

A quarter-century on, the issue still poisons modern relations between France and Rwanda under its controversial President Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel who has ruled the mountainous nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region since the aftermath of the genocide.

“Is France an accomplice to the genocide of the Tutsi? If by this we mean a willingness to join a genocidal operation, nothing in the archives that were examined demonstrates this,” the report’s conclusions said.

“Nevertheless, for a long time, France was involved with a regime that encouraged racist massacres … It remained blind to the preparation of a genocide by the most radical elements of this regime.”

The report criticised the French authorities under Mitterrand for adopting a “binary view” that set Habyarimana as a “Hutu ally” against an “enemy” of Tutsi forces backed by Uganda, and then offering military intervention only “belatedly” when it was too late to halt the genocide.

“The research therefore establishes a set of responsibilities, both serious and overwhelming,” it said.

Journalist and author Andrew Wallis told Al Jazeera the report is “explosive stuff”.

“The one thing that stood out for me was the fact they’re saying French intelligence knew it was Hutu extremists that shot President Habyarimana’s plane down, which was seen as the trigger for the genocide,” Wallis said.

“A previous French judge’s report had denied that and put the blame on President Kagame’s RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front party], and this misinformation has done the rounds for 27 years. It was in their archives that they knew this in fact was untrue.”


‘Personal relationship’

Macron ordered the creation of the commission in May 2019 to analyse France’s role in Rwanda from 1990-1994 through archival research.

France notably led Operation Turquoise, a military-humanitarian intervention launched by Paris under a United Nations mandate between June and August 1994. Its critics say it was in reality aimed at supporting the genocidal Hutu government.

There have also been repeated accusations that authorities in Paris helped suspects in the Rwanda genocide to escape while under French military protection.

The report concluded that in July 1994 “murderers but also the masterminds of the genocide” were in a safe zone established by French forces in the west of the country “who the French political authorities refused to arrest”.

Mitterrand and his inner circle were also fearful of the encroachment of English-speaking influence into francophone Africa under influence from Uganda and Kagame’s RPF.

The report tells of French decision-makers trapped in “post-colonial” thinking who supported the “racist, corrupt and violent” regime of Habyarimana facing a Tutsi rebellion considered as directed from English-speaking Uganda.

Mitterrand “maintained a strong, personal and direct relationship with the Rwandan head of state” Habyarimana, it said.

“Hovering over Rwanda was the threat of an Anglo-Saxon world, represented by the RPF and Uganda, as well as their international allies.”

French authorities behaved as if “acting in the face of a genocide was not in the realm of possibility” when there was a “moral obligation” to ensure genocides never happen again, the report said.

Tackling taboos

The 15-member commission does not have any specialist on Rwanda, a move the French presidency argues was necessary to ensure complete neutrality.

But the historians – who include experts on the Holocaust, the massacres of Armenians in World War I, and international criminal law – have been given access to archives, including those of Mitterrand himself, which were long closed off to researchers.

A statement from the French presidency said Macron welcomed the report as marking “considerable progress in the understanding and description of France’s involvement in Rwanda”.

Officials in Macron’s office said the inquiry was not just about improving relations with Rwanda but with the whole African continent, since other countries also have questions about what France did at the time.

While he seeks to position France as an assertive player on the world stage, Macron has taken tentative steps to come to terms with once-taboo aspects of the country’s historical record, although many would like to see far bolder steps.

Historian Benjamin Stora was tasked with examining France’s actions during Algeria’s war of independence and he called for a “truth commission” and other conciliatory actions in a major report delivered in January.

Macron has ruled out an official apology for torture and other abuses carried out by French troops in Algeria.

The contents of the Rwanda report are likely to have a major bearing on future relations between France and Rwanda, which Macron has said he wants to visit later this year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies