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Rwandan genocide was ‘a French political, institutional and moral failure’ says Duclert Commission

By Mehdi Ba
Posted on Monday, 29 March 2021 19:29

Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was received at the Elysee Palace by President Francois Mitterrand on 17 July 1992 in Paris. William STEVENS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The researchers of the Duclert Commission, who have been investigating France’s role in the Rwandan genocide, have just officially presented their findings to French President Emmanuel Macron. They point out numerous institutional and moral “failings”.

After conducting two years of research within the French archives, the members of the Duclert Commission made their report on France’s role in the Rwandan genocide public on 26 March, shortly after submitting it officially to French President Emmanuel Macron, who had set up this commission in April 2019.

The nine members – historians for the most part, supported by seven representatives – of this “research commission on the French archives relating to Rwanda and the Tutsi genocide”, chaired by historian Vincent Duclert (CNRS-EHESS), were tasked with examining Paris’ involvement in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994 as well as the French Republic’s troubled role in the Tutsi genocide from April to July 1994.

It is seen as one of the most sensitive issues of French foreign policy over the past half-century.

Imperial defeat

“France’s failure in Rwanda […] can be likened to a final imperial defeat, which is all the more serious because it has been neither formulated nor studied,” concludes the commissioners’ 1,200-page report, which is now available online.

They have also drawn up an inventory of the combined blindness and errors that have led Paris to struggle, since 1994, with a dizzying accusation of “complicity in genocide”.

“France has been pursuing several policies since [October 1990], which have been implemented in parallel and have ended up causing harm. The impression is that the French authorities are locked into logics that are difficult to break with, even during the genocide crisis.”

At the heart of this matter is former Socialist President François Mitterrand, whose personal commitment to this issue has never wavered. “One aspect dominates this policy,” writes the commissioners, “and that is the position of the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand, who has a strong, personal and direct relationship with the Rwandan head of state. This relationship is the reason why all the services of the Élysée Palace have been so greatly involved.”

The report also states that “requests to protect and defend the Rwandan president are always relayed, heard and given priority.”

Real progress

After the first offensive of the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR) in October 1990, “the Ugandan-Tutsi threat” perceived by the Élysée Palace – which “reveals an ethnicist reading of Rwanda by the French authorities” – ends up contaminating all the state machinery in charge of this dossier.

The writers explain that “Rwanda is under threat from an Anglo-Saxon world, which the FPR, Uganda and their international allies incarnate.”

At the Élysée Palace, it is now hoped “that this report can lead to new developments with Rwanda.”

In fact, President Macron is due to make an official visit to Rwanda in the coming weeks and the content of this report has been communicated to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, whose entourage let it be known, off-the-record, that he was satisfied with it.

“I think he has done a good job,” says an adviser, while another presidential aide has called it a “major breakthrough.”

Overwhelming responsibilities

Although the report’s conclusions seem to mark a notable shift in France’s analysis of its controversial role in Rwanda at the beginning of the 1990s, the Duclert commission has denied the accusation, of a legal nature, that has long hovered over Paris’ past actions in the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’.

“Was France complicit in the Tutsi genocide? If this means a willingness to join the genocidal enterprise, there is nothing in the archives consulted that would suggest this,” say the authors. However, the authors do not exonerate the French Republic, saying instead that it bears “overwhelming responsibilities.”

The commission has drafted a long list of its shortcomings. These include: “lack of coordination powers and absence of effective checks and balances”; “political [and] institutional responsibilities, both civilian and military”; “parallel chains of communication and even command”; “bypassing the rules of engagement and legal procedures”; “institutional abuses covered up by the political authority or in the absence of political control”, “an ethnicist reading” of the Rwandan situation, etc.

In the end, the report clearly concludes that France was responsible for a “political, institutional, intellectual, moral and cognitive failure.” This failure, according to an Elysée source, “was due to an inability to foresee the genocide that was taking shape.”

“The report describes profound failings, particularly in regards to assessing the situation and in the decision-making process,” the same source added. “On the other hand, it dismisses the notion of complicity in genocide since it emphasises that nowhere did its authors find elements indicating the intention to contribute to or participate in the actions constituting this genocide.”

No charges against Turquoise

The report also dismisses the accusations that may have been made against Operation Turquoise, which was launched at the end of June 1994. Even though the commission members indicate that this operation was late and that it may have initially been subject to certain ambiguities in the political directives received, they stress that this mission nevertheless enabled the rescue of several thousand Tutsis.

However, according to one source, “the report provides detailed and unpublished analyses – as it cross-references numerous documents – on the main subjects that have crystallised questions about France’s involvement between 1990 and 1994, whether it concerns arms deliveries to the Rwandan regime, operational involvement with the Forces Armées Rwandaises, or various episodes such as the Bisesero massacre in [June] 1994 or the unrest caused by the Rwandan interim government in the Southern Humanitarian Zone [then controlled by the French army].”

For its part, the survivors’ association Ibuka France stated that it “reserves the right to examine this document in-depth and to respond to the content of the report.” It also welcomed “the work accumulated over the past twenty-seven years by researchers, journalists and historians, which has made it possible to establish a solid and detailed knowledge of the various aspects of the last genocide of the 20th century.”

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