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US Sanctions Rwanda Over Child Soldiers – As UK Sings President Kagame’s Praises

The latest sanctions stand in stark contrast to the UK Government’s often inaccurate descriptions of life in Rwanda, where it plans to send some asylum seekers

Home Secretary Suella Braverman at a press conference in Kigali, Rwanda, in March 2023. Photo: AP/Alamy

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The US State Department will from next month end all military cooperation with Rwanda after adding the small African nation to its list of countries using or sponsoring child soldiers.

Rwanda, it says, sponsors the M23 rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo – and M23’s terror squads use armed children to commit some of the Congo’s most gruesome and bloody atrocities. 

Rwandan President Paul Kagame denies funding the group but admits having influence over it. It’s not a denial that’s taken seriously in Rwanda or the region, and the US insists that the Rwanda Defence Forces provide support to M23, which recruits and uses child soldiers. It would know. 

The US will use its 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act to end support, and the sale of military equipment, to the RDF from 1 October. Rwanda becomes the 19th country sanctioned under the Act. The United Nations, too, has reported M23’s use of children fighting in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, while DRC President Felix Tshisekedi has repeatedly condemned Rwanda’s support and arming of the group. 

The move marks the second time in recent months that the United States has slated Kagame’s regime. In March, the State Department wrote a scathing human rights report detailing extra-judicial killings, unexplained disappearances, and the jailing of opposition activists.

Both the report and the latest sanctions stand in stark contrast to the UK Government’s sometimes fawning and often inaccurate descriptions of life in Rwanda. 

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Just last week, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was cheerleading the Government’s plans to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda. He has previously described critics of the scheme as “patronising”, while skirting the fact that democracy in Rwanda is dead.

In the same week, Home Secretary Suella Braverman hinted that the UK should leave the European Court of Human Rights over the issue when, in reality, there aren’t any countries in Africa’s Great Lakes Region that would be suitable for Britain’s unwanted migrants. 

Meanwhile, it could get worse.

In the DRC, Tshisekedi is demanding that the UN MONUSCO peace-keeping forces exit his country. That may seem counter-productive, but one can understand his frustration. They have achieved little since 1999, and while they have extricated about 17,500 child soldiers, thousands more remain. Besides, many of the countries who contribute forces to MONUSCO do so solely for financial gain. As with the unforgivable tragedy of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, many of the blue berets stand idly by while atrocities are committed under their noses. 

Rwanda is a small country in a volatile part of the world. One of its neighbours, the DRC, is at war, with more than three million and counting dead. To the south, Burundi is in a state of unrelenting chaos. Another neighbour, Uganda, also stands accused of sponsoring bloodshed in the Congo. That leaves Tanzania as its single stable neighbour. If MONUSCO leaves the DRC, poorly funded and over-stretched African Union peace-keepers will have to fill the void. But, before that happens, the Congo War will inevitably spill into neighbouring countries, notably Rwanda. 

That is because Africa’s borders don’t represent Africa’s people. Both Hutu and Tutsi call the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi home. Rwanda’s most common language, Kinyarwanda, is spoken in all three, and in a corner of Tanzania. The borders are meaningless. It’s 100 miles from Goma, North Kivu’s capital, to the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The fighting is already right on the Rwandan and Ugandan borders and there’s a steady stream of refugees trudging in all directions, often back and forth. 

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There are already more than 120,000 refugees in Rwanda, and they are accommodated in grim, filthy conditions. Britain wants to send more, not to existing refugee camps, but to hostels. That’s going to throw up the ugliest of optics.

The refugees in the camps have endured gang rapes, mutilation, and torture, but are kept under canvases with little running water and no electricity. The asylum seekers Britain plans to send will go to hostels that the UK describes as comfortable. Will they be comfortable when the Congo War inevitably seeps into Rwandan territory? 

Forget, for the moment, Rwanda’s myriad anti-democratic laws and the plight of its political prisoners – Britain’s cast-offs had hoped to escape all that by seeking asylum here. Instead, they will be sent to a regime as bad or worse than the one they escaped, and one which is funding a war literally ‘just down the road’. And not just any war – Rwanda’s M23 proxy isn’t fighting in a vacuum, it’s fighting against armed forces who’re champing to take the fight to Kigali. 

It will happen sooner or later – and if Suella Braverman’s plans bear fruit, the UK will at best look mightily stupid, and at worst it will be shunned. 

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