France opens its Rwandan genocide archives to the public

France’s role before and during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a “monumental failure” that the country must acknowledge, the lead author said in a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, as the country opens its archives from this period to the public on Wednesday.

The report, published in March, concluded that the French authorities remained blind to the preparations for genocide because they supported the “racist” and “violent” government of then Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and then reacted too slowly to estimate the scale of the killings. But it cleared them of involvement in the massacre that left more than 800,000 people dead, mostly ethnic Tutsis and the Hutus who tried to protect them.

Macron’s decision to commission the report – and open the archives to the public – is part of his efforts to more fully confront the French role in the genocide and improve relations with Rwanda, including making April 7, the day the massacre began, a day of remembrance. While it is long overdue, the move can finally help the two countries unite.

Historian Vincent Duclert, who led the commission that studied France’s actions in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, told the Associated Press that “for 30 years, the debate on Rwanda has been full of lies, violence, manipulation, threats of trial. It was a suffocating atmosphere. ”

Duclert said it was important to recognize France’s role for what it was: a “monumental failure”.

“Now we must speak the truth,” he added. “And that truth allows, we hope, (France) to have a dialogue and a reconciliation with Rwanda and Africa.”

Macron said in a statement that the report marked “a major step forward” towards understanding France’s actions in Rwanda.

Approximately 8,000 archival documents examined by the Commission over two years, including some previously classified, will be made available to the public from Wednesday, the 27th anniversary of the murder.

Duclert said that documents – mainly from the French Presidency and the Prime Minister’s Office – show how then-President François Mitterrand and the small group of diplomats and military officials surrounding him shared views inherited from colonial times, including the desire to retain influence in a French-speaking country. which led them to continue to support Habyarimana despite warning signs, including through the supply of weapons and military training in the years before the genocide.

“Instead of finally supporting democratization and peace in Rwanda, the French authorities in Rwanda supported the ethnicisation, the radicalization of the (Habyarimana) government,” Duclert stressed.

France was “not complicit in the criminal act of genocide,” he said, but “its act helped to strengthen the mechanisms of (genocide).”

“And that’s a huge intellectual responsibility,” he said.

‘Passive politics’

The report also criticized France’s “passive policies” in April and May 1994, at the height of the genocide.

It was a “terrible missed opportunity,” Duclert said. “In 1994, there was an opportunity to stop the genocide … and it did not happen. France and the world bear a significant debt. ”

Eventually they went inside. Operation Turquoise, a French-backed military intervention with UN support, began on 22 June.

Duclert said that France’s’ blindness must be questioned and perhaps brought to justice, although he insisted that it was not the Commission’s role to propose accusations.

The report was welcomed as an important step by activists who had long hoped that France would officially acknowledge its responsibility in the genocide. During a visit to Rwanda in 2010, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted that his country had made “assessment mistakes” and “political mistakes” regarding the genocide – but the report may allow Macron to go further.

Dafroza Gauthier, a Rwandan who lost more than 80 family members in the massacre, welcomed it as a “major document against genocide denial.”

“For 27 years or more, we were in a kind of fog,” said Gauthier, who along with her husband Alain founded the Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda, a French-based group seeking prosecution of alleged perpetrators of genocide. “The report clearly states things.”

There may also be a change in the attitude of the Rwandan authorities, who welcomed the report in a brief statement but did not provide a detailed response. They said the conclusions of their own report, which will be released soon, “will complement and enrich” it.

This differs from Rwanda’s strong claims of French involvement as recently as 2017. Relations between the two countries, strained for several years since the genocide, have improved during Macron’s presidency.

“Olive twig” from Paris

Félicien Kabuga, a Rwandan long wanted for his alleged role in supplying machetes to the killers, was arrested outside Paris in May last year.

And in July, an appeals board in Paris confirmed a decision to end a year-long investigation into the plane crash that killed Habyarimana and began the genocide. That probe aggravated the Rwandan government because it targeted several people close to President Paul Kagame for their alleged role, accusations that they denied.

It now appears that the Rwandan authorities will accept the “olive branch” from Paris, says Dismas Nkunda, head of the watchdog group Atrocities Watch Africa, which covered the genocide as a journalist.

“Perhaps they say, ‘The past is the past.’ Let’s move on, ” he said of the Rwandan authorities.

Gauthiers said the report and access to the archives could also help activists in their efforts to bring people involved in the genocide to justice – including potentially French officials who were serving at the time.

So far, three Rwandan citizens have been convicted of genocide in France, they stressed. Four others are expected to go to trial. It is out of about 30 complaints against Rwandan citizens living in France that their group has submitted to authorities.

There are still “very few” compared to the more than 100 alleged perpetrators believed to be living on French territory, they said.