U.S. Curbs Military Ties with Rwanda Over Child Soldiers

General Kagame addressing his military on December 11, 2018

Sept 21, 2023- The United States government took a stand against the use of child soldiers by adding Rwanda to its Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) list. This marked Rwanda as the 19th country to be added to this list. As a result, the U.S. curtailed its military cooperation with Rwanda, a step that was seen as an extension of a previous halt in military aid to the African nation back in 2013. Washington attributed this restrictive action to Rwanda’s alleged support for the M23 armed group, which had been accused of recruiting and using child soldiers.

The State Department’s spokesperson, in an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI), clarified that the CSPA list aimed to hold accountable countries with credible evidence of exploiting children in armed conflict, either through government forces or supported armed groups. In Rwanda’s case, its defense forces (RDF) were implicated for backing the M23 group, an allegation that had already been confirmed in several United Nations reports.

According to data released by UNICEF in 2022, over 17,500 children had been rescued from armed groups since 2017. However, thousands still remained, primarily in conflict zones in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. Effective October 1, the U.S. announced that it would not only limit military aid to Rwanda but also restrict the sale of arms and other equipment.

This American stance received commendation at the United Nations from Félix Tshisekedi, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Tshisekedi criticized Rwanda and the M23 group and called for the expediting withdrawal of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to ease tensions. His comments were bolstered by prior UN reports that had similarly accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 group, an allegation that Kigali continued to deny.

Amidst this diplomatic fracas, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame voiced his dissatisfaction with U.S. policies during an interview with Semafor’s Steve Clemons in Kigali. Kagame, whose relationship with the U.S. has always been complex, labeled the American attitude as enigmatic and hypocritical. He suggested that the U.S. favored Congo because of its rich mineral resources, dismissing U.S. concerns about Rwandan involvement in conflicts as merely serving American interests.

The United States’ decision to place Rwanda on the CSPA list had several immediate and potential future impacts. For one, it undermined Rwanda’s narrative of having a well-organized, effective, and professional army. Secondly, it cast doubt over the European Union’s decision to grant Rwanda military aid worth 20 million euros at the end of 2022.