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Brown’s Rwanda rejection no surprise in a country far from free

Bob Brown had his visa rejected for a trip to Rwanda, where political intimidation is still worryingly frequent. Shant Fabricatorian, a journalist who spent five months in the country last year, reports.

André Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-chairman of Rwanda’s Green party, was beheaded during the country’s 2010 election campaign. Such is the intimidation of politics in the war-torn nation.

Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown was set to attend a conference of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, headed by leader Frank Habineza. The meeting is the party’s third attempt to hold an official registration Congress — a mandatory step in being allowed to run in elections in Rwanda. Permission for the conference to take place has to be granted by the mayor of the capital, Kigali — that has yet to happen.

Brown had his visa rejected, citing “contradictory messages” in his application. He was issued a visa a fortnight ago but yesterday it was cancelled via email.

I think [it] may be based on a catch-22 — I made it clear we would be going to a conference, and they know that that’s a Greens Party conference,” he told Crikey today. “But the authorities in Kigali hadn’t yet given permission for that conference to be held. That’s all I can make out of it.”

The struggle against authorities is nothing new. As Brown points out, much the same scenario played out in 2009 — it took weeks to gain approval for the relevant permissions, which only came at the last minute.

All this comes at a delicate time for Rwanda internationally. In June, a group of UN experts released a report which accused the country of supporting the M23 rebels in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, breaching DRC’s sovereignty and international sanctions in the process. That ultimately led to suspensions of aid by the United States and the European Union, although it didn’t stop the country’s accession to the UN Security Council, alongside Australia.

Meanwhile, the country’s de facto opposition leader, Victoire Ingabire, was last month jailed for eight years on treason charges, off the back of a trial which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch describes as flawed, unfair, politically motivated and failing to observe appropriate due process.

All of this raises questions about what exactly Foreign Minister Bob Carr meant when he agreed with the assertion put to him on the ABC’s Lateline on October 19 that Rwanda is a “good global citizen”. Asked to clarify this statement late last week in light of ongoing criticism of Rwanda’s backing of rebel groups in eastern regions of the Congo, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Rwanda had made “impressive progress” since the 1994 genocide, particularly in rebuilding its economy and alleviating poverty. The country had “sought to play a constructive role in global affairs, by both successfully bidding for a position on the UN Security Council and through playing a leading role on ‘Responsibility to Protect’ issues”.

Nevertheless, the spokesperson noted, “Australia remains concerned with continued allegations of human rights abuses in Rwanda. Australia has and will continue to raise these concerns, particularly in relevant multilateral form like the UN Human Rights Council.” On the question of Rwanda’s support for the M23s in DRC, Crikey was told: “Australia will await the release of the final UN Group of Experts report before taking any firm decisions.” (The final report is due at the end of November.)

The decision to bar Brown from entering the country betrays further uneasiness and intolerance to criticism on the part of the Kagame government. Certainly, Brown himself was keen to emphasise he had no intention to criticise the country’s government during his visit. “My intention was not to take on the government … [it] was to talk with the Greens, to give them backing, to talk about the Green experience elsewhere around the world,” he said. “I don’t know what apprehension the government has, but clearly they weren’t going to risk being criticised.”

Yet the odd thing is that Kagame almost certainly doesn’t need to engage in acts like this, which succeed only in further tarnishing Rwanda’s international reputation. In many ways, the country is unrecognisable from even a decade ago, and much of the credit for that goes to Kagame. Infrastructure is developing rapidly; a number of environmental initiatives have been prioritised; foreign investment is strong. Corruption is, by all accounts, very low.

That’s not to say Rwanda doesn’t have problems. Media freedom is minimal at best, and income inequality has been rising rapidly in recent years. Yet above all, it seems the government is hamstrung by a fear that to loosen those restrictions would be to return the days of vilification and of hate which ultimately engendered the genocide.

For his part, Brown is unimpressed with Carr’s position and intends to ask DFAT to request a “please explain” from the Rwandese government.

I expect that there ought to be a request from the Kagame government to explain themselves,” he said. “They talk about contradictions in the visa application — there are none. There’s certainly a contradiction in granting a visa and then, a few weeks later, after the President’s notice has been drawn to my visit, having the visa withdrawn.

It’s quite extraordinary how the government has handled this, but nevertheless, it’s up to President Kagame to explain why he has refused my visa at the last minute. If it’s me today, which other Commonwealth figure, or member of a legitimate political or other social movement, is going to be refused entry [tomorrow] because the government doesn’t like them? It’s an insidious process and needs to be confronted by governments.”

Crikey contacted a spokesperson at the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda for comment but they failed to respond by deadline.

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