Rwanda: Call to indict French leaders for genocide

August 30, 2008

A Rwandan judicial commission of inquiry into the role of France in the 1994 genocide, in which around 1 million Rwandans were killed in 100 days, has called for the indictment of 33 high-ranking French political and military leaders.

One of those named, then-president Francois Mitterand, has since died. The list also includes the then-prime minster and two future PMs.

According to the commission of inquiry, whose findings were released by the justice ministry on August 5, French involvement in the genocide extended from when the first planning began in 1990 to helping the forces that carried it out to escape, regroup and rearm in neighbouring Congo.

France armed and trained the military and paramilitary forces that carried out the holocaust — stepping up arms supplies once the killing was underway.

France's role in the genocide included promoting the "Hutu Power" ideology.

Before European colonisation, the distinction between Hutu crop growers and Tutsi herders was one of caste. German and Belgian colonialists, applying a divide-and-rule policy, racialised the distinction and promoted a Tutsi elite.

Following independence in 1962, France became the dominant neocolonial power and reversed the hierarchy. Anti-Tutsi chauvinism became the basis on which French-backed dictators sought popular legitimacy.

The Hutu Power militias wh0 were responsible for the worst atrocities were a French initiative.

Despite this, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi remained blurred. Intermarriage remained common. Both groups speak the same language and have the same religion.

One of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide was that ordinary people were forced to participate to demonstrate their Hutu credentials to avoid being massacred themselves.

According to the inquiry, French assistance in drawing up lists of victims included state-of-the-art information technology to identify and register Tutsis.

The genocide ended when the French-trained Rwandan army and militias were driven out by the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The commision alleges that France did more than just give political and diplomatic cover to the genocidal regime. When the RPF took the capital, Kigali, French troops set up "safe zones" for retreating government forces.

In these "safe zones", the military and militias carried on the killings under direct French military protection. Atrocities took place within sight of French checkpoints.

French soldiers even participated themselves, committing murder and rape, the inquiry alleges.

The French government attacked the report's findings, with the defence ministry describing them as "intolerable", insisting that the "French military had done nothing wrong".

Some of the accused war criminals also hit back. Admiral Jacques Lanxade, who was armed forces chief of staff in 1994, claimed he was "certain of the pureness of France's actions in this affair and naturally of the irreproachable behaviour of French troops".

General Jean Claude Lafourcade, who was responsible for setting up the "safe zones", dismissed the accusations as "baseless and disgraceful".

It is unlikely that former prime ministers Dominique de Villepin or Alain Juppe, or anyone else on the commision's list of French genocide suspects, will be extradited to Rwanda. Institutions of international law reflect international injustice: European political and miltary leaders do not get tried for genocide in Africa.

However the reverse — African political and military leaders getting tried for genocide in Europe — is normal international legal practice.

This is despite the fact that France's crimes in Rwanda are far from unique in Europe-Africa relations. From the slave trade, through the colonial invasions to today's diamond and oil wars and the Western-enforced world economic order that causes millions of preventable deaths through lack of clean water, healthcare and nutrition, European powers have committed genocide against Africans.

Conversely, no African country has ever committed genocide in Europe.

The French war crimes suspects should stand trial in Kigali.

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