Rwandan president addresses critics in Yale lecture

During a lecture on Sept. 20 at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, Paul Kagame, the president of the Republic of Rwanda, urged his audience of about 300 people to be skeptical of perceptions of his country put forth by the media and international human rights groups.

Paul Kagame

He urged his audience to seek to understand his country’s complexity and its history.

“Don’t just read an op-ed or sign an online petition and assume that that is the end of the story,” he said. “To lead the world and to make it better, you first must better understand it. Be as humble as you are curious.”

Kagame, who played a pivotal role ending the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that claimed up to 1 million lives, delivered the Coca-Cola World Fund Lecture at Yale, an annual address sponsored by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Kagame served as de facto ruler of Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, in which the country’s Hutu majority turned on its Tutsi minority, until being elected president in 2003 and reelected in 2010. Under his leadership, Rwanda’s living standards have improved markedly, and he has brought social stability to a nation previously torn apart by genocide. His government’s efficiency and lack of corruption is widely acknowledged.

But Kagame has also faced allegations of human rights abuses, including the use of detention and violence to suppress political opposition and the support of violent rebel groups in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

In his talk, Kagame cast his critics as outsiders whose views do not represent the perspective of Rwandan citizens.

“We increasingly base our legitimacy on results and achievements and the views of our citizens rather than external validation,” he said. 

He called on the United States and other world powers to shift their approach to developing countries from a position of moral superiority to one of humility and mutual respect.

“The defense of universal values must focus on substantive outcomes rather than on fundamentalism about process, where clearly no one holds a monopoly of wisdom,” he said.

A group of students and faculty from the Yale Law School held a “teach-in” on the lawn outside the hall before Kagame’s lecture. Speakers discussed accusations of human rights abuses lodged against Kagame and Rwanda’s government by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other watchdog groups.

Andrew Udelsman, a law student, spoke of his experiences in Rwanda while he lived in the country from 2010 through 2012. He said people in Rwanda do not speak openly about politics for fear of reprisals.

“You don’t speak without looking very carefully around you to see who’s listening,” he said.

The organizers of the teach-in circulated online an open letter to Yale President Peter Salovey and MacMillan Center Director Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science, criticizing the decision to invite Kagame to give a prestigious lecture.

“We recognize President Kagame’s role in ending the genocide in Rwanda and in bringing economic and social stability to his country. But these accomplishments ought not to obscure the serious human rights violations that have occurred under his leadership,” reads the letter, which more than 200 people signed.

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, moderator David Simon, director of the Yale Genocide Studies Program, expressed concern that the space for political debate in Rwanda is constricted. He asked Kagame whether there is space in Rwanda for democracy and human rights to expand without sacrificing peace and stability.

“There is a lot of space,” Kagame replied. “Maybe some of it is taken actually by outsiders who come into the country and decide for Rwandans. I think that occupies a lot of space.”

An audience member asked Kagame how he responds to critics within his country.

He argued that it was not enough to simply criticize and that his critics must attempt to contribute to the country’s progress.

“People should learn to believe what they see,” he said in response to a question about how he responds to critics within his country. “What we see in Rwanda is progress from almost nothing.”

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