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How Harvard Abdicates Its Moral Responsibility

By Sacha Yabili

Harvard is rolling out the red carpet for President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, inviting him to speak this Friday and Saturday at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Africa Business Conference.

Kagame gained respectability for ending the Rwandan 1994 genocide and for bringing stable governance to his previously beleaguered country. As a result, he enjoys the support of a wide range of influential public personalities including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates and Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz.

But incontrovertible facts have emerged, and they bring to light the other side of Kagame’s story. According to the Rwanda scholar Filip Reyntjens, Kagame is “probably the worst war criminal in office today.”

In 2002, Americans were warned by ABC News’ Ted Koppel, who introduced the first documentary on the war in Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo DRC) by stating, “At the heart of the continent, genocide in a tiny country [Rwanda], a genocide that horrified the world, brought chaos to a country almost 100 times its size [the Congo DRC], and you probably haven’t heard a word…. It has claimed more lives than all the other current wars around the world combined. But outside of Africa, no one seems to have noticed." The program went on to observe, "[September 11th] was the day when 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center alone. In Congo, almost that many people have died each and every day.” Kagame was the key instigator of these events.

In 2008, 40 Rwandan officers were prosecuted by the Spanish judge Fernando Andreu Merelles for "genocide, crimes against humanity and terrorism," and Kagame was implicated for claiming 4 million lives in his quest for geo-strategical supremacy. Protected by his immunity as a head of state, Kagame could not be indicted.

In 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a mapping of human rights violations in the Congo DRC from 1993 to 2003, and raised the question of whether some of Kagame’s actions might be classified "crimes of genocide."

At home, Kagame is ruling with an iron hand by quashing and eradicating the opposition and by muzzling the media. Victoire Ingabire, a Sakharov prize nominee, was arrested and jailed because she planned to run for the presidency. Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence officer and close collaborator of Kagame’s, was assassinated in a hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a reaction, Kagame stated that treason brings consequences, adding that “anyone who betrays our cause or wishes our people ill will fall victim. What remains to be seen is how you fall victim.” In 2014, soon after the BBC broadcasted “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” a documentary challenging Kagame and his role in the 1994 genocide, Rwanda pushed for criminal action against the channel, and BBC broadcasting was consequently suspended in Rwanda.

Over the last weeks, the international community has strongly criticized Kagame for obstructing the democratic transition of his own country, and for his destabilizing role in the African Great Lakes region. At a time when Africa is thirsty for sustainable democracy, Kagame – de-facto leader of Rwanda since 1994 – has set an adverse precedent by pushing a constitutional reform that granted himself the opportunity to stay in power until 2034. And ironically, the hero who once ended the 1994 mass killing in Rwanda is fueling a crisis in Burundi that may well lead to another genocide.

While not an open supporter of Kagame, Harvard has provided a powerful platform for Kagame on several occasions in the past. In 2001, when the war that Kagame fueled in the Congo DRC was costing thousands of lives every day, Kagame was invited to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2013, after the US and several European nations suspended aid to Rwanda amid allegations that Rwanda supported rebel insurgencies in Congo, Kagame spoke at the Harvard Business School as a guest of prominent professor Michael Porter. Now, despite growing criticisms from the international community, Kagame has once again been invited to speak at Harvard-related events. It is certain that the accommodation of Kagame by such a prestigious institution as Harvard has been fueling Kagame’s propaganda both domestically and internationally.

Does Harvard want to keep letting its name be used by a ruthless dictator? I do not think so. It is hard to imagine that Harvard would open its doors to leaders that are responsible for similar such atrocities, such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria or Omar al-Bashir from Sudan.

By welcoming Kagame, Harvard is abdicating its moral responsibility to denounce tyrannical regimes and to give a voice to the voiceless. Our motto as a school is Veritas—truth. Yet this weekend, we find ourselves not speaking truth to power. This is wrong.

Sacha Yabili was born and raised in the Congo DRC, and he is a student at the Harvard Business School.

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