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The age of human rights imperialism

By Andrew Mwenda

On May 20, the American Congress held a hearing on the “deteriorating human rights situation in Rwanda”.

The timing was surprising because there have hardly been incidents of human rights abuse in Rwanda for a while. Instead the hearing took place against the backdrop of widespread demonstrations in the US against police brutality meted out against African American males.

Why would the US congress be bothered by human rights in Rwanda, a country 15,000 miles away, when many of its own citizens are being killed by a run-amok police while others are being sent to jail in droves? In the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s, the government of Rwanda used to be highhanded. It relied on the systematic use of force to consolidate power to a significant degree.


This was a period when RPF’s political base was narrow and the government was also fighting a ferocious insurgency inside the country. Since the end of insurgency in 2001 and the rapid growth in the organisational reach of the RPF, the government has progressively moved away from force to economic performance and delivery of public goods and services to citizens to consolidate power.

There are still cases of human rights abuse. But they are isolated and occasional, not systemic. Human rights groups have remained oblivious of this progress in large part because acknowledging it takes away their relevance.

Rwanda today

Today, Rwanda has some of the best economic and social performance indicators of any country in the world. Its economic growth rate has averaged 7.7% over 15 years. It has over 90% of its people medically insured. It has enjoyed the fastest growth in life expectancy of any country in the world – from 28 years in 2000 to 64 years today. It has also witnessed the fastest decline in child, infant and maternal mortality.

Access to education, clean water, electricity, etc. has enjoyed rapid expansion. It has the highest representation of women in parliament of any country in the world at 64%. Citizen participation in governance has been greatly expanded alongside access to information as Rwanda works hard to put every citizen online. These are results of deliberate efforts to shift the basis of power from force to public service, repression to representation. Ironically, while Rwanda has progressively moved this far, the US has increasingly embraced repression and mass surveillance to govern its citizens.

This sounds unbelievable because America projects itself as a defender of democracy and respect for human rights. This leads people to imagine that it practises what it preaches. For example, police in America shoot and kill a black person every 28 hours.

Tens of thousands of black people are stopped and frisked (searched) by police daily for no reason except the colour of their skin – and then sent to jail. These police operations are unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court has upheld them in disregard to the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In so doing, it has granted police a license to terrorise black communities.

And as Edward Snowden has shown, the US indiscriminately eavesdrops on telephone conversations, emails or social media of American citizens, allies and enemies alike in a mass surveillance programme unprecedented in human history – not even in Stalin’s Russia.

This is not to mention the number of people jailed without trial, held and tortured in illegal detention centres around the world and the thousands who are bombed and killed by drones everyday across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

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