By Chris McGreal
The US is retreating from years of solid public support for Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, in a major shift that suggests Washington's concern at continued bloodletting in the Democratic Republic of Congo now outweighs western guilt over the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The Rwandan government has hit back at the latest accusations of its support for rebels in the DRC, calling a detailed United Nations report that prompted the US, Britain and other countries to cut aid last week an orchestrated attempt to "cast Rwanda as the villain". But Washington appears unpersuaded after publicly endorsing the report which lays out evidence of Rwanda providing fighters and military equipment to rebels in the eastern DRC where 18 years of conflict have cost the lives of several million people.
The US state department broke with its history of limiting criticism to private communications to say "we have deep concerns about Rwanda's support to the Congolese rebel group that goes by the name M23". Washington cut military aid and its war crimes chief warned that the Rwandan leadership could find itself under investigation by the international criminal court.
Tom Malinowski, a former member of President Bill Clinton's national security staff and now Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said Washington acted in the face of what it regarded as undeniable evidence.
"At no point in the last 18 years has the United States and Rwanda's other allies responded as strongly to evidence of wrongdoing by the Kagame government," he said. "At some point people get sick of being lied to. This administration, like past administrations, has gone out of its way to give the Rwanda government the benefit of the doubt and the ability to respond to critics when they've been charged with this kind of behaviour, and to explain themselves.
"But when the evidence is this clear and the government continues to categorically deny what the US government knows to be true, it's very difficult to maintain patience. What we're seeing now is patience dissolving."
The report also accuses Rwanda of protecting an accused war criminal, Bosco Ntaganda, who heads M23 and was indicted by the international criminal court six years ago.
Malinowski, who was a state department official before working at the White House, said that for many years Kigali was given considerable leeway because western inaction at the beginning of the 1994 genocide had contributed to the slaughter of about 800,000 Tutsis. It also helped that Kagame is admired in Washington and London for leading the reconstruction of Rwanda and overseeing a thriving economy even if doubts crept in about his tight control of politics which left little space for real opposition.
But Malinowski said there was a growing belief within the US administration that Rwanda was using one crime to cover up another.
"We all went through that awful searing experience and the sense of guilt that President Clinton expressed many times about the international community's failure to help Rwanda in that moment of need. Unfortunately Kagame has played on that guilt over the years to mask additional crimes that frankly we should also feel a little bit guilty about not having confronted," he said.
US policy is also guided by a 2006 law sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama which was intended to help Kinshasa protect its mineral resources from plunder and permit Washington to withhold aid from countries destabilising the DRC. There have been several reports over recent years detailing Rwandan military support for rebels in the DRC including one known as the "mapping exercise" which laid out the huge scale of killing and suffering in the late 1990s.
Even as the UN prepared to publish the latest report there was resistance to its acceptance from some in the US administration, led by Washington's ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice. She initially sought to block a crucial annex detailing evidence of Rwandan support for the DRC rebels from being attached to the main report and made public. But that move was undermined when the DRC government in Kinshasa protested and details were leaked.
Kinshasa this week described Rwandan support for the rebels as an open secret.
The US announced it was withdrawing $200,000 in military assistance to Rwanda. Britain, Rwanda's single largest bilateral donor which initially showed no willingness to act over the UN report, followed Washington's lead and said it would delay payment of the latest batch of £16m in aid. The Netherlands and Germany cut assistance too. Germany's development minister, Dirk Niebel, said he had warned Rwanda a month ago.
"Rwanda did not use this time to rebut these serious allegations," he said. "Suspending budget aid is a clear sign to the Rwandan government."
The US war crimes chief, Stephen Rapp, added to the pressure by warning that Rwanda's leaders could face investigation and prosecution by the international criminal court for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity if it could be shown they were arming Congolese rebels responsible for atrocities. Although Rwanda is not a signatory to the Rome statute creating the ICC, the DRC is and Rapp noted that the former Liberian president Charles Taylor was jailed for crimes committed in a neighbouring country.
The Kagame administration has reacted furiously to the shift in US policy, apparently in part because it was unexpected.
Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, accused western governments of treating her country like a child.
"This child-to-parent relationship has to end … there has to be a minimum respect," she said. "As long as countries wave cheque books over our heads, we can never be equal."