- Rwandan authorities and their proxies are using violence, judicial mechanisms, and intimidation to try to silence criticism from Rwandans living around the world.
- Rwandans living abroad practice self-censorship, refrain from political activism, and live in fear of traveling, being attacked, or seeing their relatives in Rwanda targeted.
- Rwanda’s partners should open their eyes to the consequences of three decades of impunity for the ruling party, see this wide-reaching repression for what it is, and demand that it stops.
(New York) – Rwandan authorities and their proxies are using violence, judicial mechanisms, and intimidation to try to silence criticism from Rwandans living around the world, Human Rights Watch said in a report published today. The moves aim to preserve Rwanda’s coveted image, quash dissent that could emerge from abroad, and reinforce a chilling message of the price to be paid to critics within the country.
In the 115-page report, “‘Join Us or Die’: Rwanda’s Extraterritorial Repression,” Human Rights Watch documents a wide array of tactics that, when used together, form a global ecosystem of repression, aimed not only to muzzle dissenting voices but also to scare off potential critics. The combination of physical violence, including killings and enforced disappearances, surveillance, misuse of law enforcement – both domestic and international – abuses against relatives in Rwanda, and the reputational damage done through online harassment constitute clear efforts to isolate potential critics.
“Rwandans abroad, even those living thousands of miles away from Rwanda, censor themselves, refrain from political activism, and live in fear of traveling, being attacked, or seeing their relatives in Rwanda targeted,” said Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Rwanda’s partners should open their eyes and see Kigali’s wide-reaching effort for what it is: the consequence of three decades of impunity for the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed over 150 people across the globe about the tactics the Rwandan authorities and their proxies use to target Rwandans abroad. Human Rights Watch documented abuse against Rwandans living in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and their relatives in Rwanda.
Their accounts illustrate the relentless nature of the attacks on those who oppose the government or simply refuse to support it or join its umbrella of diaspora associations across the globe. Multiple tactics are often used simultaneously and, if one fails, others will be used until the person they are targeting is worn down. By refusing to return to Rwanda and through their ability to criticize the Rwandan authorities from exile, refugees and asylum seekers also inherently challenge the image the authorities seek to project, one of a country that people do not need to flee.
Human Rights Watch documented over a dozen killings, kidnappings or attempted kidnappings, enforced disappearances, and physical attacks targeting Rwandans living abroad. The Rwandan government sought to use global police cooperation, including Interpol Red Notices, judicial mechanisms, and extradition requests to seek deportations of critics or dissidents back to Rwanda.
People interviewed reported that, in many cases, their relatives in Rwanda had been targets of arbitrary detention, torture, harassment, and restrictions on movements to pressure, punish, or silence their family members living abroad.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have often been credited with rebuilding a country left almost entirely destroyed after the 1994 genocide. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Human Rights Watch Africa division for almost two decades, published the authoritative account of the Rwandan genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and documented the international community’s indifference and failure to act.
Since it took power, the RPF has carried out an ambitious development agenda and worked to change Rwanda’s image internationally. The government has worked to attract investments and tourism, and to host high level events such as the first Basketball Africa League tournament in May 2021 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June 2022.
These gains have not been matched with progress on civil and political rights. The government has made creating a “hostile international opinion” of the Rwandan government a criminal offense and uses it to prosecute and intimidate critics and journalists inside Rwanda.
As Rwanda has grown more prominent on the international stage, leading multilateral institutions and becoming one of the African continent’s largest contributors of peacekeeping troops, the United Nations as well as its regional and international partners have consistently failed to recognize the scope and severity of the country’s human rights violations.
In Mozambique, for example, where Rwandan troops’ deployment in 2021 has been credited with restoring peace and security in the northern Cabo Delgado province, Human Rights Watch documented two killings, an enforced disappearance, and two kidnapping attempts targeting Rwandans since May 2021. Several Rwandan refugees there said they were threatened by Rwandan embassy officials.
One Rwandan refugee interviewed in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, said: “I am afraid all the time. I am afraid when I see a car pull up behind me. I’m afraid when someone [comes to my workplace]. I am ready to be killed at any time now. I’ve refused to go back to Rwanda, so they will kill me. There is nowhere to go. It’s not safe here, but it’s not safe anywhere.”
Interviewees spoke about how, prior to the attacks documented in the report, victims were threatened by individuals who were part of, or closely associated with, the Rwandan government. The involvement of such individuals, particularly when taken together with the persecution of government critics inside Rwanda, raises serious and plausible grounds to believe that there is official state tolerance, acquiescence, or collusion of and in these attacks.
Human Rights Watch also found that Rwandan embassy officials, members of the Rwandan Community Abroad, a global network of diaspora associations tied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, or others tied to them have monitored and pressured Rwandans abroad to join them, return to Rwanda, or stop criticizing the government.
Several people living in exile, including genocide survivors, said they have been attacked online for criticizing the governing party. Some interviewees said that, in some cases, their family members have been forced to denounce them on progovernment YouTube channels.
Targeting relatives is a particularly vicious form of control that illustrates how the system of repression abroad goes far beyond high-profile cases of assassinations, assassination attempts, and disappearances, Human Rights Watch said.
In targeting actual or perceived dissidents abroad and their relatives, Rwandan authorities have violated an array of rights including to life, physical security and liberty, freedom from torture, freedom of movement, privacy, freedom of expression and association, and the right to a fair trial.
“The accounts of Rwandans abroad expose the extraordinary lengths to which Rwanda’s government is willing to go, and the means at its disposal, to attack its opponents,” Hassan said. “Governments across the world and regional and international institutions should hold Rwanda accountable for its human rights violations at home and abroad.”
For a Q&A on the report, see: https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/10/rwandas-repression-across-borders