Rusesabagina case and the coercive diplomacy

Paul Rusesabagina pictured in Rwanda after his arrest. (From Rwanda Investigation Bureau/Twitter)

By The Rwandan Lawyer


Coercive diplomacy is the attempt to get a target, a state, a group (or groups) within a state, or a non state actor-to change its objectionable behavior through either the threat to use force or the actual use of limited force”. Coercive diplomacy “relies on the threat of force rather than the use of force. Coercive diplomacy can be more clearly described as “a political-diplomatic strategy that aims to influence an adversary’s will or incentive structure. It is a strategy that combines threats of force, and, if necessary, the limited and selective use of force in discrete and controlled increments, in a bargaining strategy that includes positive inducements. The aim is to induce an adversary to comply with one’s demands, or to negotiate the most favorable compromise possible, while simultaneously managing the crisis to prevent unwanted military escalation. As distinguished from deterrence theory, which is a strategy aimed at maintaining the status quo , coercive diplomacy entails efforts to change the status quo. Coercive diplomacy has been characterized as harder to successfully implement than deterrence. Coercive diplomacy can entail strategies to punish an adversary, raise the risk for an adversary, or deny the adversary from achieving their objectives. US senate; Belgian Parliament; the Lantos Foundation; European Parliament voiced out their disapproval of the unlawful rendition of Rusesabagina Paul and requested his immediate release facing a stubborn state like Rwanda which was still enjoying the capture of a very wanted rebel who inversely is considered as a hero by the international opinion.The various diplomatic supports of Rusesabagina prove that the international community can exert pressure on a state and push it to change its mind. The present article attempts to assess the impact of such diplomatic way on domestic level in general and on Rwanda specifically.

1.Diplomatic attempts

1.1.Belgian Government urged to discuss repatriation with Rwanda

The House’s External Relations Committee on Tuesday approved a motion for a resolution by President Els Van Hoof (CD&V) calling on the government to open a dialogue with Rwanda on the repatriation of Paul Rusesabagina, currently on trial in Kigali.

Fierce critic of President Kagame’s regime, Mr. Rusesabagina, who had been living in exile since 1996 in the United States and Belgium, was arrested at the end of August 2020 in obscure conditions by the Rwandan police in Kigali, when a plane descended that he thought was bound for Burundi. He and his lawyers, including the Belgian Vincent Leurquin, denounce “a kidnapping”.

Former manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, 66 years old and of Belgian nationality, Mr. Rusesabagina was made famous by a 2004 film recounting how he saved more than 1,000 people during the Rwandan genocide. His trial on charges of terrorism began on February 17. The conditions in which it takes place are regularly denounced by his lawyer and his family.

The resolution condemns them and calls for an independent investigation into the circumstances in which he arrived in Rwanda. This is a flagrant violation of the international convention on protection against enforced disappearance. His rights have been systematically violated,” said Van Hoof.

“If Rwanda is unable to provide for the minimum conditions for a fair trial, Belgium must take action to allow a fair trial in our country,” she added.

The resolution also calls on Belgium to do everything in its power to guarantee Mr. Rusesabagina’s fair trial rights and to offer him consular assistance in prison.

1.2.European Parliament resolution on Rwanda, the case of Paul Rusesabagina

Basing on reports of Human Rights Watch, the European Parliament expressed the different observations as following. Primo, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) continuously targets those perceived as a threat to the government and the high-profile government critics and journalists are arrested or threatened, both inside and outside Rwanda.Secundo,Rwanda has a Global Freedom Score of 22/100 and is considered as not free;  Rwandan transnational repression is exceptionally broad in terms of tactics, targets and geographic reach and includes digital threats, spyware attacks, family intimidation and harassment, mobility controls, rendition and assassination; and its government has physically targeted Rwandans in at least seven countries since 2014. Specifically Paul Rusesabagina was the managing director of the Hotel “Des Mille Collines” in Kigali during the genocide in 1994 who offered shelter and protection to 1268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were fleeing from the killing; Paul Rusesabagina is an internationally acknowledged human rights hero whose story was told in the film Hotel Rwanda; for his laudable role he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, the highest civilian award in the US, by then-president George W. Bush.

However, as Paul Rusesabagina is a fierce opponent of the current Rwandan government and co-founded the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) and thus being a regular critic of human rights violations in Rwanda, Rusesabagina fled Rwanda in 1996 following an assassination attempt and obtained asylum in Belgium before becoming a Belgian citizen and thus a EU citizen; whereas he is also a permanent resident of the United States.Furthermore, Paul Rusesabagina claims that his movements were closely monitored by Rwandan government operatives and that the Rwandan government physically threatened him after he had criticized Kagame’s repressive policies; whereas Rusesabagina’s prominence and the way his account of the genocide diverge from the official narrative is a threat for the Rwandan government, on 27 August 2020, Paul Rusesabagina has been forcibly transferred from Dubai to Kigali under uncertain circumstances and only reappeared on 31 August 2020 at the Rwandan Investigation Bureau (RIB) headquarters.Considering that  a lawful detention and transfer of a suspect from one country to another to face criminal proceedings should be accomplished through extradition proceedings, overseen by an independent tribunal, Paul Rusesabagina is currently detained in Rwanda facing terrorism related charges and is denied access to legal counsel of his choosing; besides, his indictment, casefile and other documents necessary for the preparation of his defence were confiscated on 23 December 2020 by the Prison Director of Mageragere Prison.

Given this concerning situation, the  family of Rusesabagina is extremely concerned about his medical condition as he is a cancer survivor and suffers from a cardiovascular disorder for which he takes prescribed medication; whereas the medication his family sent via the diplomatic pouch of the Belgian Embassy in Rwanda was reportedly never administered to Mister Rusesabagina; whereas he receives medication prescribed by a Rwandan doctor without knowing what kind of drug it incorporates.In this context, Mr Rusesabagina’s daughter and former colleagues are reportedly being harassed by a person claiming to be a prison guard, who is urging their involvement in (and funding for) a plot to help him escape from prison. Tertio, the European parliament strongly condemns the enforced disappearance, illegal rendition and the incommunicado detention of Paul Rusesabagina and calls for his immediate release and calls on the Rwandan government to show its willingness to conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations, and provide a complete and corroborated account of how Paul Rusesabagina was apprehended and transferred to Kigali; therefore, the Rwandan authorities are urged to allow Mister Rusesabagina a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal applying international human rights norms; recalls the Rwandan authorities that Mr Rusesabagina has the right to be assisted by a lawyer of his own choice and the right to defend himself covered by  the legal principle of presumption of innocence.To insure his good health conditions, there is called on the Rwandan government to allow his medical situation to be monitored by a doctor in Belgium, as requested by the Belgian Foreign Minister on 4 February 2021.Quarto, the European Parliament recalls that Rwandan authorities failed to conduct a credible and transparent investigation into the suspicious death in police custody of  Kizito Mihigo, a Rwandan singer,  in February 2020 as well as the suspicious death of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former spy chief and later a critic in exile, who was murdered in a Johannesburg hotel on January 1, 2014; consequently, the Rwandan government is invited to conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice.Quinto, the European parliament condemns politically motivated trials, the prosecution of political opponents and the prejudging of the outcome of the trial; urges the Rwandan authorities to ensure the separation of administrative, legislative and judicial powers, in particular the independence of the judiciary; calls on Rwanda to open its political space and improve its human rights record; expects Rwanda to implement the recommendations of the country’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva from 25 January 2021.

From the foregoing  ,the European Parliament calls on the Rwandan Government to ratify the Convention against Enforced Disappearances and the Rome Statute to become a party to the International Criminal Court; urges Rwanda to allow the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to resume its visits; recalls the recently approved EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, a mechanism for monitoring and sanctioning the serious violations of human rights, targeting individuals, entities and bodies involved in or associated with serious human rights violations; and calls for immediate action by the European Union to ensure that the legality of the arrest and trial of Mr Rusesabagina are investigated and that his rights as a European citizen are upheld at all stages of this process.Lastly, the European Parliament instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the Vice-President of the European Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU Member States, the UN Secretary-General, the institutions of the African Union, the East African Community, the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, the defenders of Paul Rusesabagina and the President of Rwanda.

2.Analysis of the documents

These statements are strong especially since they come from countries and organizations that usually help Rwanda. The question that remains open is their effect on this country which plotted and carried out the kidnapping of Rusesabagina Paul and there is possible to wonder about the impact of the international or regional diplomatic pressure on domestic level.

2.1.  The role of coercive diplomacy

Coercive diplomacy is the attempt to induce a target, a state, a group (or groups) within a state or a non-state actor to modify its reprehensible behavior either by the threat of the use of force or by the actual use of limited force. Coercive diplomacy is based on the threat of force rather than the use of force. Coercive diplomacy can be more clearly described as a politico-diplomatic strategy that aims to influence the will or incentive structure of an adversary. It is a strategy that combines threats of force and, if necessary, the limited and selective use of force in discrete and controlled increments, into a negotiating strategy that includes positive incentives. The objective is to get an adversary to comply with his demands, or to negotiate the most favorable compromise possible, while simultaneously managing the crisis to avoid an unwanted military escalation.

Unlike deterrence theory, which is a strategy to maintain the status quo, coercive diplomacy involves efforts to change the status quo. This pressure was probably exerted on Rwanda against which all the evidence established that it supported the CNDP rebellion and it had to arrest its leader Laurent Nkunda; the M23 rebellion and he stopped supporting them. What is more, this kind of diplomacy could put an end to the detention of prof. Peter Erlinder of American nationality and Abbot Guy Theunis of Belgian nationality who were released and returned to their respective countries.

2.2. Failure and success: case studies


Scholars have found that coercive diplomacy is less likely to be successful than deterrence. Studies have indicated that “punishment” strategies that target civilians tend to be ineffective. President John F. Kennedy used coercive diplomacy successfully in 1962 when he was able to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis and avert possible warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union. When Kennedy learned of the Soviet Union’s attempt to deploy forty-two medium-range and twenty-four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into Cuba, he established a naval blockade and threatened an invasion of Cuba with force to remove the missiles already there. Instead of resorting to a strictly military strategy to forcibly remove the missiles, Kennedy decided to use coercive diplomacy. He initiated this strategy by first using the ‘Try-and-See’ approach. The giant naval blockade, along with a massive build-up of U.S. military forces, was a message to Nikita Khrushchev to persuade him that the U.S. was able and willing to use force if needed to remove this missile threat from Cuba. The blockade limited the showdown to Kennedy and Khrushchev rather than develop into all-out war. Because of Kennedy’s tough naval blockade, Khrushchev directed all Soviet vessels carrying missiles and other military equipment to Cuba to immediately turn back.

To intensify the coercive diplomacy strategy, Kennedy shifted from the ‘Try-and-See’ approach to a hybrid of a virtual ‘ultimatum’ and a carrot-and-the stick approach. Kennedy addressed the sense of urgency about the growing hostile situation by standing firm and tightening the naval blockade as well as conveying to Khrushchev the continued threat of a possible invasion of Cuba. As a result of Kennedy’s successful use of coercive diplomacy added to negotiated concessions, Khrushchev agreed to remove missiles in place and to discontinue the deployment of new missiles into Cuba while the U.S. agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey and to call off any invasion of Cuba. 


During the 1990–91 Gulf War, coercive diplomacy failed to persuade Saddam Hussein to exit Kuwait and move his military forces back to Iraq; though the use of deterrence effectively convinced the Iraqi president that he could not invade further south into Saudi Arabia, it did little to expel him from Kuwait. Initially, the Bush administration along with the United Nations issued sanctions to pressure Iraq to withdraw troops inside Kuwait. The UN Security Council placed economic sanctions by imposing an embargo on Iraq’s imports and exports. This initial stage of the crisis was the United States’ attempt to use the coercive diplomatic variant, ‘Gradual Turning of the Screw’ to apply pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply to the demands to leave Kuwait. Then the Bush administration, along with the UN Security Council, used the variant ‘ultimatum’ by setting a deadline of January 15, 1991, for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. When this deadline came and passed, without Saddam Hussein’s compliance, Operation Desert Storm commenced and military force was used to remove Iraq’s forces from Kuwait. Despite the massive build-up of U.S. forces along the Saudi Arabia/Kuwait border, economic sanctions, and a declared deadline for withdrawal, Saddam Hussein failed to remove his forces. In this instance, coercive diplomacy failed, leading to the Gulf War, which concluded with the United States and coalition forces succeeding in removing Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. Thus, when implementing coercive diplomacy not only the benefits but also the aftermath must be considered. Especially in the 21st century, every nation is interdependent so other forces by state actors may affect a nation’s diplomacy.

2.3. Strategies to afford Rwandan reluctance

In this kind of diplomacy, coercion, unlike deterrence, shifts the initiative of the first action to the agent of coercion. While deterrence means passively waiting in the hope of not seeing a response, compulsion is active, thus inducing withdrawal, or acquiescence, or collaboration in action that threatens to hurt. When distinguishing between deterrence and coercion, deterrence can be described as “drawing a line in the sand” and acting only if the adversary crosses it; in contrast, coercion “requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts rather than acts” as in deterrence. Coercion consisting of both compulsion and deterrence is about action and inaction. In the specific case of Rwanda, it is necessary to exploit its economic constraints as well as the revision of its relations with these powers as well as the lifting of the lobbying from which it benefited from the Bretton Wood institutions; within the Security Council; the pressure to examine the dossier which lies dormant in its role in the violence committed in the DRC, and so on. In addition, the economic constraints of the country should be targeted.

As Rwandan budget is always fueled by foreign aid, the closure of the latter may impact on its economic sector. Sanctions can be categorized in several ways. One way to describe them is by the number of parties issuing the sanction. A unilateral sanction means that a single country is enacting the sanction, while a “multilateral” sanction means that a group or block of countries is supporting its use. Since multilateral sanctions are enacted by groups of countries, for instance European union they can be considered less risky because no one country is on the line for the sanction’s result but as Rwanda receives funds from this regional community, its budget would suffer especially if this shortage is coupled unilateral sanctions which are riskier but can be very effective if enacted by some economically powerful countries which were funding the country in bilateral aids such as Netherlands; UK; Belgium; Germany; France, US; all but a few.

To be more effective, sanctions can also target individuals, such as politicians or business leaders. The adoption of this type of sanction is designed to cause financial hardship to a small number of individuals rather than having an impact on the population of a country. This type of sanction strategy is more likely to be used when political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of individuals who have international financial interests as it is the case in Rwanda where all juicy markets are grabbed by RPF companies like NPD; Horizon; Real Contractors; Inyange; Tristar, to name a few. Therefore, the UN secretariat and AU may exert such a pressure by excluding Rwandan army rom peace missions as recently recommended by SADC members in the case of Mozambique; the lobbying attracting high summits in Rwanda should be rejected and the Rwandan president should be isolated from international conferences he has been often attending  and visas of Rwandan officials and their families be refused.


With Rwanda which raises up the issue of genocide when it is challenged by international threats for its violations of human rights, diplomatic sanctions even focusing economic and military sectors risk to deviate and not exactly aim the very target. Indeed, the success of sanctions varies in accordance with how many parties are involved. Multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral sanctions, but the success rate, in general, is fairly low. In many circumstances, the sanctions caused economic harm without changing the target country’s policies. Sanctions are ultimately blunt tools of foreign policy, because their deployment is rarely precise enough to affect only the target economy, and because they presuppose that economic harm will lead to the sort of political pressure that will benefit the instigating country. In Rwanda, it is the poor people who are said to pay the price; as proof, the government has closed the borders with the Burundian and Ugandan neighbors and has no budget problems because taxes and aid have not stopped but the population has starved more and more due to the rise in prices for basic necessities passing through these countries.