Rwanda: European Union follows US and Germany in suspending donor support over fears military is supporting Congolese rebels

Rwanda’s biggest aid donor, the European Union, has partially frozen its financial support to the east African nation, dealing what may be the heaviest blow yet to president Paul Kagame.

The move follows decisions by the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden to suspend donor support over allegations that the Rwandan military is supporting a murderous rebellion in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Britain’s position has been more ambiguous: after initially freezing £16m of general budget support to the country in July, it unblocked half that amount earlier this month, a partial U-turn that provoked criticism. The EU’s decision now leaves Britain isolated.

Analysts said the EU had been “dithering” over the issue since a report was published by experts of the UN security council’s sanctions committee alleging Rwandan support for the violent rebel group M23. Kigali vehemently denies the charges.

The EU said it would press on with existing aid projects aimed at Rwanda’s poor, but direct budgetary support of up to €70m (£56m) over six years has effectively been suspended. Overall EU aid to the country is €380m from 2008 to 2013.

“Some new decisions concerning additional budget support have been put on hold,” an EU spokesperson said. “In light of the current conflict in eastern DRC, the EU takes seriously the allegations contained in the report of the group of experts of the UN security council sanctions committee and needs more time to assess these allegations.

“Therefore, some new decisions concerning additional budget support have been delayed pending the clarification of Rwanda’s role in the conflict and its constructive engagement in search of solutions.”

The M23 is led by Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the international criminal court for war crimes It was formed when fighters from an ethnic Tutsi rebel group integrated into the Congolese military in a 2009 peace deal. The six-month uprising has forced 470,000 people to flee their homes.

The Congolese government welcomed the EU’s stand. Atoki Ileka, its ambassador to France and special envoy to the UN, said: “This position gets into line with what many European countries have done so far. It’s a step in the right direction. It is good to put pressure on the Rwandan leadership.”

Civilians are being killed and raped because of a “so-called” rebel movement, he added, and it was vital to find a solution. “The stalemate is on the Rwandan side. The evidence is there. We all know Rwanda is directly supporting a rebellion in the region. There has been interference going on for 15 years and we must put a stop to it.”

A report by Human Rights Watch earlier this month accused the M23 of widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes and forced recruitment. Thirty-three of those executed were young men and boys who tried to escape the rebels’ ranks, the watchdog said, adding that it had clear evidence that the Rwandan army had deployed troops to directly support M23.

Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher on Rwanda for Human Rights Watch, said: “The EU is one of the biggest donors to Rwanda and this should send a clear signal that the Rwandan military should stop supporting the M23, otherwise Rwanda’s relationship with international partners and friends may be jeopardised. Rwanda still depends heavily on foreign aid for its national budget to it should take this seriously.”

Britain’s failure to hold the line was a mistake, Tertsakian added. “In our view that was strategically counter-productive. It gave the signal that everything was fine. It was premature.”

When the controversial decision was made, Britain claimed that Rwanda deserved credit for engaging constructively in peace talks. “Given this progress, and recognising that the government of Rwanda has continued to demonstrate its strong commitment to reducing poverty and improving its financial management, Britain will partially restore its general budget support to Rwanda,” Andrew Mitchell, the outgoing international development secretary, told parliament.

A source at the department for international development said on Thursday: “The new secretary of state, Justine Greening, will be looking extremely closely at the issue of budget support to Rwanda.”

Last month Kagame, once seen as a darling of the west, castigated donors who cut aid and launched a so-called “dignity fund” to help wean the country off its dependence on outside help. Rwanda relies on donors for about 40% of its budget.

Its foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, responded to the EU cuts on Twitter. “EU suspending ‘new aid’ to Rwanda is either old news or designed to mislead,” she posted. “No such decision has been taken.”

Kagame and Congolese president Joseph Kabila are due to join a UN crisis meeting in New York on Thursday. On Monday Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, met both leaders to push for a solution, only for Kabila to make indirect reference to Rwanda’s alleged meddling in his speech before the UN general assembly on Tuesday.

Aid agencies warn that the situation on the ground is worsening and the UN’s refugee agency has called for an additional $40m (£25m) to help those displaced by fighting.

Médecins Sans Frontières reported that its staff now fear for their safety. “It’s alarming that our Congolese colleagues are compelled to join the thousands of people currently displaced in the region,” said Jan-Peter Stellema, MSF’s operations manager. “It’s a strong indication of how fear has escalated, how people believe the situation will go from bad to worse. It also shows the increasing challenge to deliver medical aid to those in need.”

Franz Rauchenstein, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Congo, added: “The security in the east of the country has deteriorated further. People in areas where there is a high level of violence are hit very hard. Because the situation is rapidly and steadily worsening, the ability of people to meet their needs is being severely tested.”

By David Smith

The Guardian