US blocks military aid to Rwanda over alleged backing of M23 child soldiers
Rwandan government condemns sanctions, which also apply to Burma, Central African Republic, Sudan and Syria
Rwanda’s military denies any link to the use of child soldiers by M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Reuters
The US has sanctioned Rwanda over of its alleged support for a Congolese rebel group that sends child soldiers into battle.
The decision to block US military aid was condemned by Rwandan officials but endorsed by the country’s political opposition for “bringing the Kigali regime to account”.
The Rwandan government has been accused by the UN of backing the M23 rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a charge it denies.
The sanctions also apply to the Burma, Central African Republic, Sudan and Syria. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said: “Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, we have just announced those countries that are being sanctioned under that act, and Rwanda is one of those countries.
“Our goal is to work with countries that have been listed to ensure that any involvement in child soldiers, any involvement in the recruitment of child soldiers, must stop. In this case, it was related to M23, and we will continue to have discussions with the Rwandan government on that issue.”
Marie Harf, a state department spokesperson, added that Rwanda was sanctioned because of its “support for the M23, a rebel group which continues to actively recruit and abduct children” and to threaten the stability of DRC.
Rwanda will not receive US international military education and training funds, which help train foreign militaries, nor US foreign military financing, which funds the sale of American military material and services, Harf explained.
The US has had close military ties with Rwanda since president Paul Kagame‘s Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power after the 1994 genocide. The country’s army is regarded as one the most disciplined and efficient in the region.
The M23, which accuses the Congolese government of failing to honour a 2009 peace deal, is fighting the Congolese army and a UN intervention brigade near the Rwandan border. In July, Human Rights Watch said it had documented dozens of cases of forced recruitment by M23 forces since March, including of children.
The UN’s group of experts has reported that the M23 is receiving “direct support” from the Rwandan military, including when it briefly captured the major city of Goma last year. Rwanda claims no conclusive evidence has been produced.
The issue has created a headache for western donors who previously heaped praise on Kagame for transforming the shattered country into a development success story. Some have partially frozen aid.
On Friday, the Rwandan military criticised the US decision to withhold aid. “It is surprising that Rwanda would be liable for matters that are neither on its territory nor in its practices,” said the army’s spokesman, brigadier general Joseph Nzabamwita. “As a long-term partner of the Rwanda defence forces, the United States has ample evidence that our forces have never tolerated the use of children in combat.
“Rwanda’s commitment to a sustainable solution that seeks to bring an end to the DRC conflict and its consequences, including the use of child soldiers, remains unchanged. The collaboration between the government of Rwanda and the United States remains strong, particularly in the field of peacekeeping, and Rwanda will continue to hold its forces to the highest standards of professionalism and discipline.”
He added that the “decision to include Rwanda among states that use child soldiers is not based on evidence or facts”.
But the move was applauded by Kagame’s Rwandan critics. Three groups – FDU-Inkingi, the Amahoro Peoples Congress and the Rwanda National Congress – said in a joint statement: “We commend the efforts of the United States government to have taken the lead in bringing the Kigali regime to account for the horrendous human rights abuses committed in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We call upon the United States government and other members of the international community to impose comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Kigali regime.”
The groups also called on the UN security council to impose sanctions against the Rwandan government for supporting the M23 “as well as for other human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The UN fighting force has made gains against the M23 and reduced the threat to Goma as peace talks continue, but deadly violence continues to flare. This week Human Rights Watch urged the UN security council to adopt a resolution requiring Rwanda to end all support to the M23 and impose sanctions on senior Rwandan officials involved.
The watchdog quoted a woman from Rutshuru in eastern DRC as saying she was raped by an M23 rebel fighter who said to her: “We also had wives, but they stayed in Rwanda. So that’s why we rape you.” After the woman was raped, the fighter shot her in both thighs, Human Rights Watch reported.
Kagame recently expressed frustration at constantly being blamed for the instability in eastern Congo. “It’s like, you know, the world has decided, for Congo, you ask Rwanda. Why? I don’t understand,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York.
“My question always is, why doesn’t the country, the state of Congo, deal with the issues themselves? They should be the ones telling the world nothing is working, or what they think can work for them. I cannot be the one to keep being asked to answer what should work for Congo. This is a serious problem.”