In Rwanda to meet with Commonwealth leaders, Trudeau remembers a genocide

·4 min read
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rearranges the flower on a wreath at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on Thursday. More than 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi have been buried in a mass grave at the memorial. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rearranges the flower on a wreath at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on Thursday. More than 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi have been buried in a mass grave at the memorial. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

It was a visit heavy with political and perhaps even personal significance, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laid a wreath on Thursday at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda.

The site contains the remains of more than 250,000 Rwandan Tutsis who were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in the spring and summer of 1994.

Former Canadian general — later Liberal senator — Romeo Dallaire, who was an early backer of Trudeau, led the peacekeeping mission that failed to prevent the genocide.

More than 800,000 Tutsis lost their lives across the country in the organized campaign that stretched over 100 days.

The prime minister paid his respects as Commonwealth leaders gathered in Kigali to discuss, among other things, human rights and increasing food insecurity on the African continent.

On Thursday, Trudeau announced Canada would contribute an additional $250 million toward the United Nations World Food Program, on top of $500 million that was already earmarked. It is likely going to be welcome news among African Commonwealth leaders, especially in light of a recent International Monetary Fund report this spring that warned soaring fuel and food prices will lead to instability in Africa.

Rwanda's genocide memorial contains not only the remains of victims, but also photographs and personal items.

Trudeau was greeted by the executive director of the centre and had an opportunity to speak with a survivor of the genocide.

"What happened here in Rwanda 28 years ago resonates not only every day for Rwandans, but resonates around the world, as well, as something that we all have to be vigilant on," Trudeau told reporters. "We all have to be there, to make sure the road never gets walked again, anywhere else in the world."

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Many of the victims' names have yet to be gathered and documented, and many of the victims who rest in the graves are unknown.

Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, paid a visit to the site on Wednesday.

After also laying a wreath, Charles — the first member of the Royal Family to visit the country — met Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who played a major role in the military victory that ended the genocide.

Trudeau was to meet separately with Kagame on Thursday, but the bilateral was postponed to later in the Commonwealth meeting.

Canada expanding diplomatic mission in Kigali

Human rights groups have long criticized the choice of Rwanda as host for the Commonwealth meeting, citing Kagame's restrictions on press freedom, the arrests of high-profile critics and allegations that authorities have failed to conduct credible investigations into cases of enforced disappearances and suspicious deaths of government opponents.

Rwanda — a former German and then Belgian colony — was admitted to the Commonwealth in 2009 over the objections of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Human Rights Watch, which noted recently that Kagame's government arbitrarily detainees homeless people and and other vulnerable populations in Kigali ahead of major international conferences, like the Commonwealth leaders meeting.

The organization interviewed 17 individuals who claimed to have been detained without charge last year as part of the effort to clean up the streets of the capital.

Trudeau said talk of human rights always comes up in his conversations with world leaders.

"I will as always continue to be frank and direct about how we need to make sure that we're continuing to support everyone's rights," he said, noting there are other Commonwealth countries that have poor records on protecting LGBTQ rights.

"The Commonwealth is a place where there are people who, and leaders who, don't go as far as we'd like on human rights," said Trudeau. "The number of Caribbean friends of ours, for example, who still criminalize LGBTQ rights and aren't stepping forward enough. Rwanda is taking better strides on that than many of the other partners."

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced Wednesday that Canada would upgrade its diplomatic mission in Kigali to a full embassy and high commissioner. An ambassador will also be appointed to the African Union.

"What is happening here in Rwanda is the future of Africa — and we know Rwanda is playing a leadership role and Rwanda is making progress," as a Commonwealth member, Joly said.

"And so that's why it's strategic to be here. We believe that more than ever, Canada's voice needs to be heard. And to do that, we need to have more tools, we need to have more resources, we need more boots on the ground."

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