By Ian Dunt
On September 4th, during his last day as international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell did something disgraceful. It was fifteen days before his expletive-filled outburst outside Downing Street, when he repeatedly called policemen “f***ing plebs” and became embroiled in a row which would poison his tenure as Tory chief whip before it even started. But the decision Mitchell made on September 4th was far, far worse.
It would stain Whitehall’s reputation for international development and show the UK was willing to funnel taxpayer funds to human rights abusers in Africa, if they were fortunate enough to enjoy pleasant personal relationships with a British secretary of state.
Against the advice of his civil servants and the Foreign Office, Mitchell used his last act as international development secretary to reverse a £16 million cut to the Rwandan aid budget. Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s regime is accused by human rights groups of imprisoning journalists, allowing the torture and disappearance of undesirables, fuelling civil war in central Africa and plotting assassinations on British soil. But fortunately for Kagame, he also gets on well with Mitchell. It is not something he struggles with. Western leaders are usually very impressed by his professional manner and free-trade ideology.
In July, with a minimum of fuss during the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the UK cut its aid budget to Rwanda. Just 53 days later, Mitchell reversed it. Then he closed the door of the Department of International Development behind him for the last time.
Today, an Amnesty International report into Rwanda shows what happens in the regime Mitchell helps to prop up. After two years of research, the human rights group found criminal suspects were subject to electric shocks, severe beatings and sensory deprivation.
“I was taken to another office,” one man told report’s authors. “Everyone was there when they put this electric thing on my back. When I got to the point of dying, I told them to bring me a piece of paper [to sign], but they continued to torture me.”
Another said: “There are other rooms where they put you and you lose your memory. They ask you a question and when you find yourself again they ask you a question. When you return to normal, they sting you. The electric thing they use is like a pen and they put it under your arms. It is like charcoal. When they sting you, all your body is electrolyzed and the entire body is paralyzed.”
Throughout the interrogations – often lasting several months – families and friends are told nothing of the whereabouts of their loved one. They are also denied access to lawyers or medical treatment. When they arrive in court, many try to explain the treatment they received, but in contravention of international law judges typically asked them to prove the torture rather than ensure the allegations were investigated.
Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the M23 mutiny saw rebel forces challenge the government, reportedly under the leadership of General Bosco Ntaganda, also known as ‘The Terminator’. Ntaganda, who has been charged with war crimes for conscripting children under the age of 15 as child soldiers, is reliant on Rwanda for weapons, ammunition and young Rwandan recruits. An unreleased UN Group of Experts report laying the blame on Rwanda was distributed to members of the Security Council.
Rwanda also appears to be trying to use death squads to carry out assassinations in London itself. ‘Threat to life’ notices from the Met to vulnerable Rwanadans, seen by the New Statesman, suggest they are in danger of being killed by the Kagame government. “Reliable intelligence states that the Rwandan government poses an imminent threat to your life,” the notices read. “The threat could come in any form. You should be aware of other high profile cases where action such as this has been conducted in the past. Conventional and unconventional means have been used.”
This is the regime Mitchell went out of his way to hand millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money to, while waxing lyrical about the need for spending cuts at home on TV and radio broadcasts. His loyalty to the Rwanadan regime is such that he even justifies threats against young women to their own fathers.
In August 2009, a 21-year-old woman doing work experience for a national newspaper went to one of Mitchell’s Rwandan operations, which goes under the campaign name of Project Umubano. The plan was for staff to give Rwandan teachers English lessons. She praised the project and the attitudes of those who were conducting it, but offered some modest criticism of the Rwandan Ministry of Education’s failure to pay the teachers a stipend to cover their costs, despite the 15 kilometre walk they had to undertake to reach the classes and their lack of money for food once they got there.
Once they saw the article Mitchell’s aides suddenly became aggressive. “Unbeknown to me Mr Mitchell had phoned my father, a friend from his Cambridge University days, while he was on holiday in Thailand to vent his anger,” she wrote in the Telegraph. “He even sent him a text which said: ‘They are threatening her with physical violence and I can’t say I blame them.’
“Then one of his male aides emerged in tears. He told me again that I had betrayed the party, the trip, the group, and that it didn’t matter anyway because I was going to get sued. Instead I went to sleep knowing that I would have to leave, and desperately thinking what I would do for the week until my flight home. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be woken up in the morning by a member of the group telling me that I should leave that very moment, because the group was threatening physical violence against me.”
The Foreign Office has not been as loyal to Rwanda as Mitchell. But it’s an African state, so the Department for International Development was given the lead. Eventually, enough was enough. The torture and human rights abuses at home, the funding of civil war in Africa and the threats against the lives of Rwandans living in London suggested something had to be done. Britain’s aid partners overseas were outraged the UK should still be Rwanda’s largest bilateral aid donor. None of this convinced Mitchell, who went out of his way to reverse the action the British government reluctantly took.
The continuation of the Rwandan aid budget is a stain on Britain’s reputation overseas, but it should also shame us at home. While we have spent weeks talking about Mitchell’s revealing class-war outburst outside Downing Street, we have let him off the hook as he funnels British taxpayer money towards a despicable regime which kills its opponents and destabilises central Africa. The most grotesque aspect of British relations with Rwanda is that he’s been allowed to get away with it.