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Kagame turns the table

So, along with Rwanda’s material progress under Kagame, his human rights record has characterized his leadership. Yet, he bristles when confronted with it—usually by Western critics. Accordingly, when a reporter for the French TV network France24 questioned him in June 2019 about that record, he seized the opportunity to turn the tables on the West.

To begin with, he said, criticism of his human rights record is “rubbish” and “ridiculous.” He accused the West of arrogance and having a “superiority complex.” Alluding to Africans’ fight for independence from European colonialists, Kagame said:

You think you are the only ones who respect human rights, and all others are about violating human rights. No, we’ve fought for human rights and freedoms for our people much better than you people who keep talking about this nonsense.

Referring to ongoing developments in Europe and the United States, Kagame said Western countries are abusing the human rights of refugees and immigrants. “Europe is violating people’s rights with this problem of people being bundled and sent back to sink in the Mediterranean and so many people being mistreated in your own country,” Kagame said.

Kagame also could have compared his leadership of post-genocide Rwanda with America’s war against terrorism. In a span of seven years, both countries suffered national traumas that substantially affected civil liberties in both countries. Kagame’s case has already been recounted above. There are some parallels with America’s.

The September 11 (2001) attack by al-Qaeda was readily the most traumatic incident in American life since the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the campaign to track down and eliminate al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, the United States has spared no rod. A Senate study publicized in December 2014 documented the various forms of torture used to seek to extract confessions from suspects.

The Washington Post’s (December 9, 2014) lead on the report says it describes “levels of brutality, dishonesty and seemingly arbitrary violence that at times brought even agency employees to moments of anguish.” The torture included sleep deprivation, water-boarding, the thrusting of brooms into suspects’ anus, and the euphemistically termed extra-ordinary rendition. Under “rendition,” suspects were abducted and flown to remote territories of the world and held

Contention not Confucian 65 incommunicado. Some were ultimately handed over to regimes that would “neutralize” them. And some never made it out alive.

When the number of suspects in the dragnet surged, the United States established a special prison for them in Guantanamo Bay. There, they were in a legal vacuum: neither prisoners of war nor regular prisoners. Neither the Geneva Conventions nor U.S. laws applied to them. So, the innocent suffered the same fate as the liable. And given that the threshold for being a terrorist suspect was so low, a large number of the detainees were probably people who were presumed guilty for being at the wrong place.

Anthony D. Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union and journalist Dina Temple-Raston recount some specific ordeals in this regard in their book In Defense of Our America. One case is that of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen and Lebanese by birth. He was heading for vacation in Macedonia, when, at the request of the CIA, he was abducted and turned over to the agency. He was blindfolded and ear-padded and flown to a secret prison in Afghanistan where he spent the next five months.

During that period, he was subjected to extensive interrogation and torture, including being “locked in a small, dirty, cold concrete cell.”2 In the end, the CIA determined that he was innocent. It was a case of mistaken identity. But if El-Masri thought that his ordeal was over, he was mistaken. Rather than being released to his family, he was “blindfolded, handcuffed, chained to the seat of a plane, flown to Albania, and—without explanation—abandoned on a hillside at night.”3

The torture program was apparently abandoned after its disclosure stirred much controversy. Meanwhile, the United States has sustained a drone attack campaign that has regularly decimated terrorist networks in the Middle East and parts of Africa. From various accounts, the drones are regularly on the watch or can be deployed in a moment’s notice. And they are lethal. The problem has been that even with the greatest care, their casualties have included innocent family members, including children. Sometimes, the wrong intelligence—or its misapplication—has resulted in the exclusive loss of innocent lives.

In any case. President George W. Bush had asserted that he did not feel bound by any law. And his Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, had authored a memo in which he described the Geneva Convention as “quaint” and “obsolete.”

These are the realities that Kagame alludes to when he reacts with indignation to questions about his human rights records. They are some of the reasons he accuses the West of a “superiority complex.”

And he is not alone. The view that the West over-estimates its own libertarianism is widely held by non-Westerners ranging from bloggers to academics. Ali A. Mazrui, then director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton, wrote extensively in rejection of the notion of Western exceptionalism in human rights.4 He argued that infringements for which the West now criticizes other countries were the norm in the West until recently. Among other things, he cited the examples of women’s and LGBT rights. He noted that it wasn’t until the 1920s that American women were granted the right to vote. And LGBT lifestyles were not accorded legal legitimacy until the 21st century.

And then there is the view that the West’s campaigns for human rights are highly selective and self-serving. Critics note that governments that are in adversarial relationship with the West tend to be regularly chastised for civil rights infringements and the friendly ones get away with the same. The Abu Dhabi daily Al Khaleej ran a frontpage editorial to this effect on December 14, 2014. The editorial titled “On American values” (in Arabic) says that the U.S. government advertises itself as the world’s protector of human rights, but in reality, it is on a quest for hegemony.5

Earlier on in May, a blog in with no byline made much the same point. “America is a country driven by its own interests, not values and ideals,” the blogger wrote. “There is no place for American values when it comes to diplomatic practice. ... The policy is opportunistic and pragmatic to serve their interests.”6

It is improbable that Kagame, Mazrui, and the Muslim bloggers truly believe that their countries are at par with the United States in the practice of human rights. The target of their argument is the notion of exceptionalism. Between the First Amendment and Document #9, there is much political gradation. And despite their seeming absoluteness, the principles they embody are quite elastic in practice.


  • 1 “Tiananmen Square Protest Death Toll ‘was 10,000,”’ BBC, December 23, 2017.
  • 2 Anthony D. Romero and Dina Temple-Raston, In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror (New York: William Morrow, 2007), 69.
  • 3 Romero and Temple-Raston, In Defense of Our America.
  • 4 A summary of his arguments may be found in Ali A. Mazrui, “Islamic and Western Values,” Foreign Affairs, 76, 5 (1997), 118-132.
  • 5 Information courtesy of Muhammad Alqhtani, a Saudi graduate student in communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  • 6 Information from Alqhtani.
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