"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


enough already

The other Rwanda-related thing that happened late last week was the release of American lawyer Peter Erlinder. Erlinder, you may recall, is the ICTR lawyer who went to Kigali to defend Victoire Ingabire, the Hutu opposition politician who would very much like to run for president in Rwanda's August 9 elections, but who is being blocked from doing so by the government, which accuses her of violating the country's vaguely-worded genocide law. Still with me? Good.

Rwanda released Erlinder on bail on Thursday and allowed him to leave the country, which effectively ensures he'll never stand trial there. Over the weekend, Erlinder made it to Nairobi, held a press conference, and immediately expressed dissatisfaction with what he apparently believes should be constituted under the term "American Citizen Services:"
Peter Erlinder, 62, said he had to sleep on a concrete floor without a blanket and without assistance from the embassy after his May 28 arrest in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. The Minnesota law professor thanked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for saying Rwanda shouldn't arrest lawyers but said embassy officials in Kigali and Nairobi have not helped much.

U.S. Embassy officials in Nairobi did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.

"My government insisted that I take my medications from my captors rather than bringing me medications directly," Erlinder told a news conference in Nairobi, his first public comments since his arrest. "It was impossible for them to arrange a doctor whom I would pay so that I wouldn't have to get my food and my medication from my captors."

Erlinder did not outright say that he feared taking food from Rwandan authorities, but that was the implication. He added that it wasn't clear to him that "my own embassy was working in my interests." He did not elaborate.
A couple of points are in order here. One has to do with what happens to an American citizen who travels to a specific country with the knowledge that he or she will likely be arrested upon doing so. In Erlinder's case, he clearly knew the risk of going - he took the precaution of notifying the State Department, his Senators, and his Congressman that he would be traveling to Kigali in advance of his departure.

This suggests that Erlinder at least in part went to Kigali in order to make a point. Fine. What I'm not clear on is why he believed that the U.S. Embassy staff would be willing to provide him with services when he traveled to the country in full knowledge of the risk he was taking. Quite frankly, it's not a foreign service officer's job to get an American citizen out of trouble when it's very clear that the citizen got into that situation willfully and in full knowledge of the potential consequences of doing so.

Even if it were - and even though these requests seem fairly reasonable - American diplomats are not miracle-workers. While it is possible to pressure a foreign government in cases like this (which, given Erlinder's release, almost certainly did happen), they have absolutely no authority to force the Rwandan authorities to do anything. Erlinder was being ridiculously paranoid in assuming that the Rwandan government would try to off him by denying him medications or poisoning his food. They don't like Erlinder, but the RPF are public relations geniuses. The last thing they wanted or needed was a dead American ICTR lawyer on their hands.

From what I hear from Kigali, the U.S. Embassy staff were none too amused by Erlinder's decision to show up in Rwanda despite his knowledge that he was likely to be arrested. Even so, Erlinder was released within three weeks of his arrest, which suggests that a great deal of diplomatic activity took place in order to secure his release in a pretty quick time frame. While I do think Erlinder has the right to say what he likes and believe what he believes about Rwanda and its history without being arrested, he knowingly invited trouble by taking this trip. He's fortunate to be a free man today.


Blogger Tord Steiro said...

With all due respect I think you are wrong in this case. I think diplomats should definitely care for lawyers and others when working in the field of human rights abroad, even if it is risky. the whole idea that the US (or any other country) promotes human rights looks ridiculously hollow if they do not follow up on detentions like this. Even if the detained where aware of the risk.

However, this still do not necessarily hold true for people like mycountrymen in the Congo. What they where doing where clearly risky, and basically their own business.

Norwegian diplomats, however, are still bound by an obligation to offer support in order to ensure a fair and proper trial, and acceptable conditions in jail. Norwegian diplomats even supports to this level for clear-cut criminals.

Monday, June 21, 2010 3:46:00 AM

Blogger Alex Engwete said...

I can’t believe reading this post! Diplomats, former officials, and influential people should intervene on behalf of wrongly or rightly imprisoned citizens of the world. Need I remind you here that Rev. Jesse Jackson or former president Bill Clinton did just that? One justifiable reason why American diplomats in Kigali should have intervened on behalf of Professor Erlinder: the US is funding the RPF regime!

Besides, why can’t an American go to a country massively funded by the US to make the “point” of demonstrating that it’s a US-funded rogue state?

And I can’t believe reading something to the effect that “the RPF are public relations geniuses.” This is a joke, right? After what happened this past weekend in Jozi to Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa? I need to refresh your memory here (or maybe you were too young at the time, though that’s not an excuse): in 1998, former Rwandan Interior Minister Seth Sendashonga was murdered in Nairobi in broad daylight by RPF goons. Kenya had to recall its ambassador from Kigali over that incident. The RPF don’t care about PR, they are bullies who have even succeeded in browbeat Western governments.

And you seem to think that Erlinder “was being ridiculously paranoid” about the real possibility of being poisoned. Maybe he was warned by other Rwandans (like Madame Ingabire) to beware. You need to do some research on Congolese collaborationist politicos who survived the occupation of eastern DRC by Rwandan troops. Some among them who attempted to show an inkling of independence were swiftly “offed” with the violent poison called “karuwa.” And if you have ethnobotanists among your colleagues, they will tell you a thing or two about this poison traditionally used in Rwanda for killing fish.

Monday, June 21, 2010 5:33:00 AM

Blogger Alex Engwete said...


"... have even succeeded in BROWBEATING..."

Monday, June 21, 2010 5:36:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

There were multiple embassy staff working to secure Erlinder's release for the last three weeks. That hardly constitutes neglect. Diplomats are professionals. It is their job to intervene in situations like this, which they did. They are not, however, babysitters who are to cater to the unreasonable demands of their citizens. It's usually the Red Cross who address concerns of this nature, btw.

Alex, I am well aware of all the issues you mention. Unfortunately, it's pretty obvious that the RPF wouldn't deal with a white American lawyer in the same means they might have dealt with Sendashonga or their political enemies in the DRC. The former gets the government into a nightmare global situation that would have resulted in the cutting off of aid and turning Rwanda into a pariah state in the eyes of the international community. The latter resulted in little reaction. And the fact that the RPF issued about 20 press releases and emails yesterday regarding Kayumba suggests that they care about public relations very much indeed.

Monday, June 21, 2010 6:49:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

TIA I agree with your original post. Erlinder's statements have been made online and in conferences (clearly denying the Genocide) and not while representing a client in Arusha. It is as if he was caught drink driving or bribing someone. Just because he is a US citizen or a lawyer does not make him above the law.

What shines through the writings of Erlinder and his co-conspirators is anti-Americanism. It is fitting that (his supporter) Engwete thinks that Africans deserve so little dignity or sovereignty that he believes that if they accept aid from a country their citizens must be above the law or maybe detained in more comfortable "prisons for whites".

What is sad is that there are Rwandans, opponents of the current regime, who think that Erlinder & Co care about Rwandans. They do not. Because Rwanda needs investment and aid and has a good relationship with the US they would prefer Rwanda to go back to 1994 and reverse the development gains that have been made just to spite the US and because they do not believe Africans can develop their countries, that everything is down to US manipulation. Do Erlinder & Co care about ordinary Rwandans many of whom live in poor conditions like Erlinder experienced in prison? No.

Erlinder went to Rwanda in pursuit of his own ego and his anti-American agenda. He had so little respect for Rwandans that he did not think HE could be arrested or put in a prison like ordinary Africans and his first complaint on release was that the US (the country he describes as an evil empire) did not do more for him.

I am still left with the impression that both Ingabire and Erlinder are seriously deluded. The ridiculous behaviour of Erlinder is just a further blow to the already limited credibility that Ingabire has in Rwanda. They both need psychological help, it seems to me.

Monday, June 21, 2010 6:54:00 AM

Blogger Alex Engwete said...

@ Texas in Africa:

You’re so right in broaching the question of the double standard that goes deeper than the mere cutting off of aid. This anecdote is worth repeating here: a friend of mine who was reporting for the BBC in Nairobi once told me he reported on a story that took place in eastern DRC, an incident involving about two dozen dead. He was told by his producer to cease reporting on incidents in the region involving such low body count.

@ Anonymous:

Carceral conditions are a question of fundamental human rights. Overcrowding, undernourishment, famine and other acts of barbarity are rampant in African prisons. It’s a very sad comment on Africa. Mandela survived 27 years at Robben Island. I’m willing to bet with you he wouldn’t have survived 5 years in a Sub-Saharan prison. Case in point: consider what happened to Moshood Abiola after only 4 years in prison!

Monday, June 21, 2010 8:29:00 AM

Blogger Nkunda said...


Are you suggesting lawyers stop representing clients because for fear of being arrested? And, in such a situation, shouldn't the US intervene in support of Human Rights?

Erlinder is a US citizen and the US Embassy first responsibility is to ensure the safety of its citizens.

Also, while I agree that RPF are PR geniuses, I also do know that they do not necessarily hide their criminal activities. They have arrested people in broad day light, have supported Laurent Nkunda and several other Congolese Tutsi...it is just that the world has chosen to ignore. Not many are willing to push past the official story line. It has nothing to do with PR.

As for the Anon guy...could it be that your comments are written to remind us of the RPF PR ingenuity? If that is so, you're doing a poor job. I am Rwandan and I will say it loud and clear, that Rwanda deserves no sovereignty to oppress its citizens. They deserve no immunity to kill and assassinate. Whether this is racist, paternalistic or colonial, I don't care!

When you say "Erlinder went to Rwanda in pursuit of his own ego and his anti-American agenda."

Is it Anti-American to defend a client or human rights...

Engwete...thanks for bringing some light here.

Monday, June 21, 2010 12:00:00 PM

Blogger Ron Rollins said...

As someone who has worked at embassies in Africa, TIA is completely right, and the rest of you are wrong for stating more should have been done.

You are talking about sovereign countries that have their own laws. The United States can't, and shouldn't, tell them what to do, any more than Rwanda could tell the United States to release any prisoner.

You don't know the kind of behind the scences dealing that has to be done in cases like this, and public relations is very important. The embassy is their to represent the entire county, not one individual who ignores warnings not to go there.

Some of you people really need to learn what the process is, before you start demanding action.

Monday, June 21, 2010 1:23:00 PM

Blogger friends of congo said...

Ron, just wondering, if the case was in Zimbabwe and not Rwanda would you have the same response?

Monday, June 21, 2010 3:37:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Ron is right - an embassy's job is not to "protect" its citizens, especially when those citizens knowingly do something dumb, naive, or willfully ignorant. The primary job of US diplomats is to represent the interests of the United States government abroad. They also have the job of assisting and aiding US citizens, but when an American breaks the laws of a country, they can't always do much.

I would argue that Erlinder didn't actually break Rwandan laws here, and that the law he is accused of breaking is unjust. But nonetheless, his decision to go into the country when he knew he was likely to get in trouble for doing so was incredibly irresponsible. US diplomats did what needed to be done to secure his release. That was their primary responsibility and they fulfilled it.

Monday, June 21, 2010 3:53:00 PM

Blogger james said...

TIA maybe you are right Erlinder had no business going to Rwanda, and he should have known better. Maybe he's also wrong to critisize the American Embassy.

But you are missing the bigger picture here. By he's foolish act he may have just changed the course of history for Rwanda. He has managed to turn a lot of people's heads. And for That Rwandese will always be thankful to him.

Monday, June 21, 2010 6:12:00 PM

Blogger Ron Rollins said...

Friends of Congo,

My answer would be exactly the same. This is about the role of the embassy and what they do, not about any particular country. Be it Zimbabwe, or any other.

Whether we agree with their laws or not, they are sovereign countries, and have the right to enact any law they wish. We have the right to break off diplomatic relations, sanction, or even go to war if that was the case. But we don't have a right to tell ANY country how to run their internal dealings.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 1:51:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Folks - This isn't about process, and this isn't even about loftier - yet clearly ESSENTIAL - concepts such as sovereignty. (Please don't distort that for a lack of understanding for the PROFOUND abuses of sovereignty in the region.)

Yes, clearly, Erlinder made a deliberately risky move to enter a country where he knowingly would face arrest for statements made (both in official and personal capacities).

The question is not whether it was "responsible" for him to put himself in that situation and then expect to be bailed out. The question must be whether it is responsible to NOT provide more compelling support to a citizen who, at personal risk, challenges a law that essentially ensures officially sanctioned and enforced oppression of ANY dissent.

Even if one concedes that Erlinder has said offensive if not downright false claims about what has transpired in Rwanda over the years, does that eliminate his basic right, nay duty, as a public servant to illuminate this most basic and blatant subjugation of the right to free speech?

Yes, Rwanda is its own country, with its own laws, and the right to enforce them as it chooses. But do we really quarrel over questions such as access to adequate citizen services when so much more is at stake?

If the United States stands for anything, if it is to exert its influence and interests through foreign representation, is not the basic value that a people should be free from fear of dissenting views - and even offensive claims - worth standing for?

So please, disagree with this and that, but might there be a substantive conversation had about what really matters here?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 3:02:00 AM

Anonymous Peter said...

Free speech does not give you the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. For the same reasons, one does not have the "free speech" right to destabilize Rwanda by agitating to return it back into the smoldering cauldron of ethnic conflict and genocide. One's right to free speech (as per the crowded-theater example) does not give one the right to trounce others' rights to safety and life, as the Genocide denialists and minimizers are so bent on doing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 3:26:00 AM

Anonymous J.T. King said...


Thanks for being a consistently objective source of opinions and views on subjects related to Rwanda. The current debate is a polarizing one, and i think the government should be held accountable for its actions. However, it is not appropriate to blindly support the actions of the opponents of the government simply because they are opponents of the government.

Erlindger's actions were reckless and for publicity sake. He went to "defend" a woman who didn't ask for his help and has distanced herself from him. In reality I believe he expected what he got and wanted to make the government look foolish in the eyes of the world.
Should he be imprisoned for the things he said - no.
Did he know he was asking for trouble be going there - yes.

I have a tough time being sympathetic with a guy who picked a fight he knew he would lose only to get publicity for his cause.

Friday, June 25, 2010 4:34:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, J.T. I try, but as you can see, it's pretty hard to have a rational debate on this issue.

Monday, June 28, 2010 12:05:00 PM


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