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The Essay: The deadly problem with a Pearsonian foreign policy

By Michael R. J. Bonner      

As Canada considers a revitalized role in peacekeeping in the Middle East, eastern Europe, and Africa, it’s crucial to remember the naïve and bloody mistakes of the past.

The victims of the Rwandan genocide are remembered at the Nyamata Memorial Site. Photograph courtesy of Inisheer from Wikimedia Commons
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Twenty-two years have passed since the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. Over the course of about three months, more than 800,000 people were killed by their own countrymen in that small, poor, densely-populated country in the African Rift Valley; many of them were children.

Some estimates of the total death toll eclipse two million, but even the lowest estimates make the Rwandan genocide the swiftest mass murder of the 20th century with, by far, the largest popular participation. Neighbours killed neighbours, husbands killed wives and children, and the weapons were household tools, farm implements, and rough-hewn clubs.

It is often claimed that the international community did little to stop the genocide as it was taking place. This is true, and this claim ignores the role that foreigners, including Canada, played in fomenting and encouraging the paranoia and hatred which animated the genocide long before it occurred, and it fails to acknowledge that nearly everything the West did during the genocide served to prolong and encourage it.

The history

But first, some history. The usual story is that the two main ethnicities in modern Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi, were not originally ethnicities but castes. Tutsis were supposedly a cattle-herding aristocracy who ruled over a much larger group of agrarian Hutus. If a person acquired or lost wealth, his caste rose or fell accordingly. It is often asserted now that, anciently, a Hutu could become a Tutsi, and a Tutsi a Hutu.

Illustration courtesy of TUBS, Wikimedia Commons.t57d94bff.m800.x04c69cd1

Rwanda, indicated on a map of Africa. Illustration courtesy of TUBS, Wikimedia-Commons.

But John Hanning Speke, the self-proclaimed discoverer of the source of the river Nile, propounded the idea that Tutsis were a race superior to the Hutus over whom they ruled, and that the Tutsis were not native to Rwanda.

By the time Belgium came to possess Rwanda (1922-1962), Speke’s race theory was taken as fact by both Hutu and Tutsi; and the colonial masters had entrenched racial differences by ruling through the Tutsi king and his court, and by enforcing that Rwandan identity cards include the race of the bearer. Hutu resentment and anxiety led to a revolt in 1959, which ended in a huge massacre of Tutsis and the swift reversal of Belgian favouritism.

As Rwanda was hastily ushered out the colonial nursery in the early 1960s, the Belgian governor Guy Logiest enforced a policy of empowering the Hutu majority.

Speke’s hypothesis about the foreignness and superiority of Tutsis was now invoked to justify Hutu dominance of Rwanda. Hutus were indigenous; they were humble farmers at home in the hills of Rwanda; they were workers, not leisured aristocrats; they were unsullied by collaboration with white foreigners; and they were entitled to self-determination because they were the majority.

Belgium and Western powers connived at the formation of the Parmehutu party and social movement founded by Grégoire Kayibanda. The Parmehutu espoused an ideology of Hutu supremacy and identification with the plight of agrarian workers according to socialist principles. The result was the vilification of the Tutsis on the ground that they were oppressive feudal overlords, and extraordinarily violent pogroms were organized against them. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled Rwanda and settled in neighbouring countries, mostly in Uganda.

A dangerous mixture of white guilt and then-fashionable ideas of self-determination and socialism meant that the Parmehutu party found a great deal of support from Europeans. UN missions, European clergy, and the people attached to the Belgian colonial government regularly dignified and validated the most exaggerated and aggressive expressions of the Hutu supremacist movement.

They helped draft manifestos and petitions to the UN, and they solicited foreign funding. All of this advanced the cause of Hutu supremacy and linked the old Tutsi monarchy to feudal rule by foreigners. Europeans must have seen all this as a sort of affirmative action avant la lettre, but they were really encouraging something much more sinister.

The strange brew of ethnic supremacism and socialism, which led to the foundation of the Parmehutu party, appeared to give way to reason and civility in the 1970s. Juvénal Habyarimana, another Hutu, took power in a military coup in 1973, and remained in power until 1994. But this did nothing to quell the Hutu supremacist movement, which continued to seethe below the surface of Rwandan politics and social life.

Meanwhile, Tutsi exiles in Uganda became organized in what came to be known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda and a civil war began.

In the midst of this civil war, before the genocide began, a supposed intellectual of the Hutu supremacy movement called Léon Mugesera, gave an inflammatory speech which clearly revealed the spirit of his party. Looking back upon Rwandan independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mugesera declared that the Hutu revolution was basically incomplete. The Tutsis were still present in large numbers, defiling Rwanda; and so, to finish the work of the revolution, the Tutsis had to be exterminated.

Mugesera then invoked the hideous image of throwing the corpses of Tutsis into the Nyabarongo river, so that the Tutsis could get back to Ethiopia (where they were said to originate) faster.

The oncoming genocide had long been taking shape within the minds of extremists in the reigning Hutu party, and Mugesera’s speech gave it impetus, and as it seemed at the time, an historical and intellectual foundation. The masterminds of the genocide, Théoneste Bagosora and his circle, organized the importation of machetes on a gigantic scale, as well as more modern weapons and ammunition.

Photographs of genocide victims displayed at the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali. Photograph courtesy of Adam Jones, Ph.D.t57d94bd9.m800.x7ec65c21

Photographs of genocide victims displayed at the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali. (Photograph courtesy of Adam Jones)

Because of the odious system of identification cards, it was easy to draw up lists of Tutsis to be murdered, and paramilitary bands were recruited and trained. All of this was quite obvious to contemporary observers, such as Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, who warned of the impending genocide. But preparations for it were portrayed as spontaneous civil defence against foreign invaders and their domestic accomplices.

A power-sharing agreement, known as the Arusha Accord, was drawn up between the Habyarimana government and the RPF in 1993. Hutu extremists hated these Accords, and believed that they had been betrayed by their leader Habyarimana. And so, on April 6, 1994, those extremists fired missiles at the airplane carrying Habyarimana and the President of Burundi and their staff. Everyone aboard died, and the plane went down near Kigali. This was the signal for the genocide to begin.

The most important and loathsome preparation for the genocide was the founding of a Hutu Power radio station known as Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). This platform’s purpose was to broadcast instructions to paramilitary groups and ordinary citizens alike, along with incessant anti-Tutsi messages, songs, and jingles. Names and addresses of Tutsis were regularly read over the airwaves, so that listeners knew whom to kill and where to find them.

However, it is an almost unbelievable absurdity that no one on RTLM ever used the words ‘Tutsi,’ or ‘kill,’ and so on. Tutsis were instead described as vermin: ‘cockroaches’ and ‘snakes’ were the usual words; and instead of killing, listeners were encouraged to ‘work,’ to ‘clean their houses,’ and to ‘cut down tall trees.’ These tactics of glossing over the gruesome instructions were effective because anti-Tutsi hysteria had been nourished for so long, and was hidden under the guises of nationalism, self-determination, socialism, and progress.

Seemingly, every stereotyped phrase pertaining to international development and popular uprising was invoked on RTLM. Listeners were told of the virtues of hard work, co-operation, and the importance of defending their own land; they were assured that the outside world approved of the progress they were making.

Despite repeated demands by Dallaire and others that RTLM’s transmissions be jammed, no effort was made to do so. For some absurd reason, the U.S. State Department considered the cost of shutting down RTLM too great, and considered doing so a violation of freedom of speech. Moreover, when UN-mandated French forces created a safe zone in south-western Rwanda, RTLM was allowed to move its radio tower within it and broadcast its genocidal instructions in safety from the advancing RPF.

Canada’s connections

A few months before the genocide began, an informant showed Gen. Dallaire the stockpiles of machetes and guns in Kigali, and Dallaire immediately cabled to Kofi Annan, who was then-assistant secretary general for peacekeeping at the UN. Dallaire had been told of the Hutu extremists’ plan to kill off the Tutsis, and warned Annan accordingly. Ludicrously, Annan insisted, to the very last moment of the genocide, that Dallaire remain impartial and not exceed his mandate as a UN peacekeeper.

When the genocide began, Western powers’ very first move had been to evacuate all foreigners from Rwanda, leaving the genocidal government and the RPF to fight it out by themselves.

It may surprise readers to learn about Canada’s role in enabling Rwanda’s génocidaires. Pundits such as Gerald Caplan often assert that Canada ‘had few interests’ in Rwanda, as if to imply that our involvement there was spontaneous and without precedent. This is a preposterous assertion. Canada poured a great deal of money into Rwanda from the 1960s onward. Despite this, our enormous foreign aid payments failed to achieve any leverage with, or power over, the government of Rwanda at any time; they merely funded the Hutu supremacist movement.

By the 1980s Rwanda had become the ‘jewel in the crown’ of CIDA’s foreign aid programmes, according to the book The Path of Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire edited by Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke. By the time Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had left office, Rwanda received from Canada more aid per capita than any other country. Bizarrely, officials at CIDA convinced themselves that all was well, despite ethnic fissures, anti-Tutsi pogroms, and Hutu supremacism. Officials at what was then-External Affairs refused to believe that anything was amiss, and rejected a report warning of genocide and human rights abuses by the Habyarimana government as ‘partisan, non-objective, and hysterical’, as Howard Adelman noted in his article ‘Canadian Policy in Rwanda’ within the collected volume The Path of a Genocide.

In 1962, Georges Henri Lévesque, dean of social sciences at the University of Laval, founded the National University of Rwanda at Butare. This university immediately became a hotbed of Hutu extremism—which seems to have passed without comment among the class of Pearsonian nationalists at External Affairs who eagerly funded it throughout the 1960s and onwards.

Similarly, Hutu extremists got a surprisingly warm welcome in Canada: many of the Hutu elite came to Canada for their education, and a large Hutu-Canadian network took shape known as the Rwandan-Canadian Friends. Surprisingly, in his famous book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire claims to have been wholly unaware of these connections.

The most important founding member of this network was none other than Léon Mugesera. This ferocious ideologue received a grant from CIDA—according to his personal website—and completed his doctorate at the University of Laval between 1982 and 1987. As his personal website states rather absurdly, he became ‘politically active’ in 1992; a reference, no doubt, to his revolting speech advocating genocide after returning to Rwanda.

Mugesera remained in Rwanda toward the beginning of the genocide, but swiftly returned to Canada posing as a refugee. He and his family were given permanent residency alarmingly quickly, and he obtained a teaching position at the University of Laval. I wonder to what extent Mugesera’s Rwandan-Canadian Friends eased his return to Canada, and whether officials at DFAIT (as it was then called) expedited the process under political pressure.

Mugesera was successfully deported from Canada in 2012, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Rwanda alarmingly on April 15, 2016.

The problem with being the ‘honest broker’

So much for the fashionable misconception that Canada simply did nothing about the genocide in Rwanda. Far from it. We funded, educated, and then sheltered the man who gave the genocide its intellectual impetus.

But to understand how Canada encouraged that genocide, we must examine the dominant ideology of Canadian foreign policy. Pearsonian internationalism was the doctrine that animated our foreign policy throughout most of the 20th century, and which established our programme of foreign aid.

The Pearsonian doctrine reposes upon some doubtful assumptions: that Canada is the world’s fixer of problems, or ‘honest broker’ as the usual jargon still has it; that it was Canada’s business to promote ‘reconciliation and peaceful settlement of disputes’ throughout the world, as former Liberal adviser Roland Paris put it; that ‘multilateral’ institutions such as the United Nations were Canada’s best hope for influence in the world; and (as former Prime Minister Joe Clark said) that Canadians were ‘multilateralists by talent and by instinct’—a typically pompous claim.

The centrepiece of Pearsonian foreign policy was peacekeeping.What is peacekeeping? As Dallaire himself puts it, peacekeeping  meant that ‘lightly-armed, multinational, blue-helmeted, impartial and neutral’ soldiers would be “interposed between two former warring factions…either to maintain the status quo…or to assist the parties implementing a peace accord.”

Pearsonianism assumes that the parties involved are equal and that peace between them is desirable and possible. Moreover, if Canada is a neutral ‘honest broker’ or peacekeeper, it must be because Canada is indifferent to the outcome of a contest between two parties whose positions are of equal value. Such a policy is rather better suited to mediation between antagonists in a schoolyard tussle than to deciding the great contests of the modern world.

The greatest conflicts of human history involved opponents between whom no reconciliation was possible or desirable. The French wars of religion come to mind, as well as the eastern front in the Second World War, the Russian-engineered famine in Ukraine, and the warfare against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Canada’s new Liberal foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, has promised to revive Pearsonian foreign policy after a decade of abeyance. But when we consider how much damage Pearsonianism has done, we should hope that Dion does not succeed.

At its worst, Pearsonianism is an ideology disconnected from reality, which prevents the Canadian elites who believe in it from understanding the world as it is. This ideology presupposes that both parties in a conflict deserve a fair hearing and have equally sound cases to make. At its best, Pearsonianism is naïve, because it assumes that human beings are better than they really are, and that the basest element of humanity can be transmuted into multilateralist gold with a little Canadian influence.

Even if it had not managed to committed genocide, the Hutu supremacist movement should never have been considered legitimate. But internationalists everywhere were duped by the rhetoric of self-determination, democracy, and socialism. When the Rwandan genocide was about to begin, most Canadian foreign-policy makers clung obstinately to the idea that Rwanda was a success of humanitarian aid and development. When the genocide was underway, Canada and the rest of the so-called international community were neutral.

Often we remind ourselves that we must never again allow a similar genocide to occur—especially since we had ample warning that it was about to happen. It is disconcerting that, without appearing to have learned anything, the Liberal government are once again committing to a peacekeeping mission In Africa.

Will another mission attempt to maintain neutrality between a murderous genocidal regime and its opposition? Finally, I observe with sadness and anger that some of the anti-Tutsi rhetoric familiar from Rwanda can now be heard in Burundi, Rwanda’s southern neighbour.

What will Canada and the international community do this time? p-and-i-graphic-copy

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