An invasion of a neighbouring country that breaks international law. Tremendous death and destruction. An authoritarian government with a long-time ruler who crushes any opposition. But not Russia and Ukraine.
The contrast between Rwanda’s invasion of Congo and the much more widely reported conflict in eastern Europe is stark.
A brutal dictator who has been terrorizing his neighbours for three decades has instigated a new wave of violence. Ottawa could stop the fighting with a fraction of its contribution to Ukraine but remains complicit in the violence.
Rwandan troops and the M23 Kigali it arms, trains and “directs” are close to capturing Congo’s main eastern city of Goma, which would likely drive hundreds of thousands from their homes. Already, the rebels have displaced more than half a million over the past year, adding to millions previously driven from their homes by Rwandan forces in region. The M23 has committed many massacres in the mineral rich region. According to the UN Human Rights Office, the M23 summarily executed 171 civilians in Bambo and Kishishe between November 21 and 30.
The M23 is the successor to a Rwanda-backed rebel force led by Laurent Nkunda, who grew to prominence after Rwanda invaded. In 1996 Rwandan forces marched 1,500 km to topple the regime in Kinshasa. Two years later they re-invaded after the Congolese government it installed expelled Rwandan troops. This led to an eight-country war between 1998 and 2003, which left millions dead. Ever since Rwanda has had significant sway over eastern Congo, which it has pillaged of minerals.
Canada has been complicit in Rwandan violence in various ways. Justin Trudeau has deepened relations with Paul Kagame who was trained at the US military’s officer academy in Fort Leavenworth Kansas. Canada’s prime minister has repeatedly met Africa’s most ruthless dictator and Ottawa provided $39 million in assistance to Rwanda in 2021. In June Canada announced it was opening an embassy in Kigali to combat Russian influence in the region. AmidstRwandan violence in Congo, Trudeau focused his discussion with Kagame, who was then hosting the Commonwealth Summit, on opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Canada also has historical ties to Rwandan violence in Congo. Canadian companies Banro and Barrick Gold worked with the rebels Rwanda backed when they invaded in 1996. More substantially, Ottawa instigated a UN mission designed to enable Rwanda’s invasion. In late 1996, Canada led a short-lived UN force into eastern Zaire, meant to bring food and protection to Hutu refugees. The official story is that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien organized a humanitarian mission into eastern Zaire after his wife saw images of exiled Rwandan refugees on CNN. In fact, Washington proposed that Ottawa, with many French speakers at its disposal, lead the UN mission. The US didn’t want France, which was pro- Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, to gain control of the UN force.
On November 9, 1996, the UN Security Council backed a French resolution to establish a multinational force in Eastern Congo. Four days later, French Defence Minister Charles Millon, urged Washington to stop stalling on the force. “Intervention is urgent and procrastination by some countries is intolerable,” Millon said in a radio interview. “The United States must not drag its feet any longer.”
Canada’s mission to the Congo was designed to dissipate French pressure and ensure it didn’t take command of a force that could impede Rwanda’s invasion of the Eastern Congo. “The United States and Canada did not really intend to support an international force,” writes Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens. “Operation Restore Silence” was how Oxfam’s emergencies director Nick Stockton sarcastically described the mission. He says the Anglosphere countries “managed the magical disappearance” of half a million refugees in eastern Zaire. In a bid to justify the non-deployment of the UN force, Canadian Defence Minister Doug Young claimed over 700,000 refugees had returned to Rwanda. A December 8 article in Québec City’s Le Soleil pointed out that this was “the highest estimated number of returnees since the October insurrection in Zaire.”
Ultimately, most of the Canadian-led UN force was not deployed since peacekeepers would have slowed down or prevented Rwanda, Uganda and its allies from triumphing.
Kigali justified its 1996 intervention – and subsequent ones – on the grounds it was threatened by the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. But Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) shot down the plane carrying Rwandan Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana and much of the army high command, which sparked the 1994 genocidal killings. Additionally, the 1990 RPF/Uganda invasion of Rwanda displaced over one million and turned the country into a tinderbox ready to explode. In effect, the individual most responsible for the mass slaughter of 1994 has used those horrors to justify decades of violence in eastern Congo.
Canadian officials, most notably Romeo Dallaire, assisted Kagame’s RPF and have played an important role in promoting a wildly simplistic depiction of the complex interplay of ethnic, class and regional politics, as well as international pressures, that spurred the Rwandan Genocide.
If the Canadian government devoted a tenth of the weapons, training and intelligence assistance it’s given to Ukraine this year to the Congolese military it would quickly put a stop to Rwanda’s violence in eastern Congo. In fact, Ottawa could likely halt Kigali’s violence by severing aid to Rwanda and launching a major diplomatic campaign against it.
Like Russia’s invasion, Rwanda’s actions in Congo violate international law. They are similarly brutal. But in the Congo Ottawa largely ignores the foreign force violating international law and human rights.
It makes one doubt whether Ottawa’s principal concerns are human rights, sovereignty and a rules-based international order in Ukraine.