September 25, 2022

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta at a Joint Press Availability – United States Department of State

18 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Kigali, Rwanda

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

FOREIGN MINISTER BIRUTA:  Secretary Blinken, members of the press, good morning.  I would like to start by welcoming Secretary Blinken and his delegation to Kigali.  And this visit is an opportunity to enhance bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Rwanda and discuss matters of mutual interest.

Earlier today, His Excellency the President of Rwanda received Secretary Blinken and his delegation.  We had productive discussions about the partnership between our two countries.  At the bilateral level, we appreciated our substantial cooperation in various sectors, including defense and security, trade and investment, peacekeeping, and health.  The Government of Rwanda appreciates the significant support of the U.S. Government in the fight against COVID-19 in Rwanda, where the U.S. Government contributed more than 5 million doses of vaccines and 100 medical ventilators to Rwanda.  The U.S. continues to be, indeed, a strong partner in Rwanda’s efforts to build a strong and resilient health system.

We are also very pleased with our cooperation in the defense sector.  Our military cooperation has continued to grow, and we were happy to co-host with the U.S. the 11th Annual African Air Chiefs Symposium earlier this year in Kigali.

We also discussed the security in eastern DRC, the very real consequences for Rwanda, and reaffirmed our support to regional efforts, including the Nairobi and the Luanda initiatives toward peace and stability in our region.  We agreed on the need to eradicate all illegal armed groups operating in eastern DRC, including the FDLR and its factions.  We noted the resurgence of hate speech, public incitement, and genocidal ideology in DRC, and the need to address this issue.  We also reaffirmed the importance of respect of territorial integrity by all the countries in the region.

At the global level, this visit was an occasion to discuss the consequences of the war in Ukraine on Africa, and Rwanda in particular.  We look forward to working with the U.S. Government on addressing the challenges we are facing in relation to the consequences of this conflict.

Once again, we are happy to host you, Secretary Blinken, and your delegation in Rwanda, and we look forward to continuing our work together and strengthening our partnership with the U.S.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Mr. Minister, thank you very much, and thank you for hosting our delegation today.

A few days ago in South Africa, I set out our administration’s new Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, a strategy that recognizes African nations and peoples as equal and vital partners in advancing our shared priorities, tackling together global challenges, and being able to deliver for our citizens.

You see those same goals reflected in the relationship between Rwanda and the United States.  The journey that Rwanda has taken over the past two decades has been remarkable.  You’ve risen from the ashes of genocide to become a global destination for innovation, for investment, for tourism.  You lead internationally on priorities that we share: making critical contributions to the United Nations and regional peacekeeping missions; speaking up for Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion; co-sponsoring a resolution at the United Nations to start negotiations on a legally binding global agreement on plastic pollution – with scores of countries’ support, including the United States.

And our two countries have worked closely together on the issues that matter a great deal to Rwanda’s future: improving the quality of your health care system; strengthening your agricultural production and food security; expanding economic opportunities; bolstering the education system, so that Rwandan youth are empowered to seize opportunities in the 21st century economy.

In partnership with COVAX, as the minister mentioned, the United States has donated more than five and a half million doses of safe and effective vaccines to Rwanda, which has helped the country vaccinate nearly 70 percent – fully vaccinate nearly 70 percent of its population.

In the last six years, we’ve helped more than 2.8 million Rwandans get access to electricity for the first time – electricity generated using renewable energy.

So the relationship between our peoples is deep and diverse, as is evident in the collaboration between Rwandan and American nongovernmental organizations, students, entrepreneurs, doctors, and others.

As the foreign minister said, we just came from a meeting with President Kagame, where we covered a wide range of issues, including many of the ones that I’ve just discussed.  I also raised issues where we have real concerns.  On those, our discussions were direct, candid, respectful.  The president candidly conveyed his views as well.  I discussed the credible reports indicating that Rwanda continues to support the M23 rebel group and has its armed forces inside the DRC.  We recognize that Rwanda has security concerns of its own, including reports of cooperation between the Congolese military and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the DFLR, an armed group.

My message to both President Tshisekedi and President Kagame this week has been the same: any support or cooperation with any armed group in eastern DRC endangers local communities and regional stability.  And every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others.  The United States has the same message for all neighboring countries.

We’ve seen where the failure to respect these principles can lead in the immeasurable consequences of the decades-long conflict in eastern DRC, which has taken the lives of more than 5 million people and displaced millions more.

Coming out of the discussions, both presidents have agreed to engage in direct talks with each other.  They’re both ready to resume the talks in the context of the Nairobi Process with armed groups, and both welcome the continued U.S. engagement in support of African-led mediation efforts.

We know that Rwandans are also alarmed – justifiably – by the increase in hate speech in the DRC targeting Rwandaphones.  The United States will continue to condemn such unacceptable and dangerous rhetoric, and I encouraged President Tshisekedi, his government, to do the same.

Leaders in the region – particularly Kenya and Angola – are working hard to lower tensions and address the problem of armed groups in the eastern Congo.  We’re deeply grateful for these efforts.  These initiatives are crucial for getting the actors to resolve their differences peacefully, through diplomacy rather than through violence, and to address the underlying drivers of the conflict.

In our discussions, I also raised serious concerns about human rights.  As I told President Kagame, we believe people in every country should be able to express their views without fear of intimidation, imprisonment, violence, or any other forms of repression.  That’s true whether they are political opponents, human rights defenders, journalists like the ones in this audience, or simply citizens.  These are values cherished by the American people and people around the world; that’s why I raised them, as have members of the U.S. Congress.

I raised the case of Paul Rusesabagina, who is a lawful permanent resident of the United States, and underscored our concerns about the lack of fair trial guarantees provided to him.

Later today, I’ll have an opportunity to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial.  It will provide a chance to reflect on the unimaginable horrors of the genocide, which reverberate to this day; to reaffirm the importance of standing up, rather than standing by, in the face of atrocities; and to ask ourselves what history teaches us about the need to prevent hatred and fear from taking hold again and squandering the progress the people of Rwanda have made since that time.

We have the deepest admiration for the people of Rwanda, their courage, their resilience, all that they have built.  And we hope the conversations we’ve had today will help our partnership grow even stronger.

Finally, Mr. Minister, if you would indulge me just a point of personal privilege, as we say back in the United States.  One of the most important tools in our arsenal is the power of the spoken word – what we say both at home and on the world stage.  In the past 18 months, our voice, my voice, has been shaped and sharpened by our chief speechwriter, Megan Rooney.  I raise this now because Megan will soon be leaving the department.  Others’ gain is our profound loss, and that loss is especially pronounced when it comes to me.  Not only is she a master wordsmith who can make what can sometimes be a dry policy soar, she’s a wonderful person.  Kind.  Funny.  Fun to be around.  To put her in the vernacular, she brings a trademark joie de vivre, which has been a light for me and our entire team, especially the case when we’re traveling around the world.

So, Megan, thank you, thank you, thank you, and I’ll end by saying that going forward should I happen to say something, I don’t know, less than artful, we’ll know why. Thank you.

MS ROONEY:  Okay.  That was so nice.

MODERATOR:  Thank you Minister, thank you Secretary Blinken. Now, we’ll take a couple of questions now starting with RBA.

QUESTION:  Isabelle Masozera from RBA.  I have a question for both officials.  Secretary Blinken, the State Department has designated Paul Rusesabagina as wrongfully detained.  What does this mean in this case?  Also, we understand that you are unable to meet the victims of FLN attacks due to your tight schedule, but what would you say to the victims and their families?

And also, to Minister Biruta, on the same issue – President Paul Kagame last night tweeted, saying there are things that just won’t work here.  Was this discussed this morning in the meeting, and what does the government plan to do about this issue of putting pressure on releasing Rusesabagina?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  We have been clear about our concerns related to Paul Rusesabagina’s trial and conviction, particularly the lack of fair trial guarantees.  We continue to urge the government to address our concerns about the legal protections afforded to him in his case and establish safeguards to prevent similar outcomes in the future.  I had an opportunity to discuss this matter with President Kagame this morning.  I’m not going to get into specifics, but we’ll continue to engage on it.  And I also had an opportunity just a few days ago to talk to Paul Rusesabagina’s family, and we’ll continue to be in contact with them as well.  Thank you.

Oh, and I’m sorry, the second part of your question.  One of the most profound reasons that we are engaged in support of African-led mediation efforts in the eastern Congo as well as in other parts of the region is precisely because at the heart of everything is human suffering and real people, individuals, men, women, and children who are the victims of conflict, the victims of violence, the victim of armed groups of one kind or another.  And it’s very easy to get focused on big questions of policy, but what this comes down to is actual lives – real human lives.  That’s what motivates me.  That’s what motivates us to seek to help wherever we can resolve conflict, preserve peace, and give people a chance.  And I think we’ve seen far too many victims of violence and conflict, and that’s why we have a strong incentive to do whatever we can to end it.

I have opportunities wherever possible to meet with those who have been victimized by violence of one kind or another, who have been victimized by conflict, who have been victimized by a lack of opportunity that results from places and societies being in conflict.  And if I don’t have an opportunity with an individual group, I usually have a pretty good idea of their stories, what’s happened to them.  And that is the motivating factor for me every single day.

FOREIGN MINISTER BIRUTA:  And listen, on the question about Rusesabagina, as far as the Government of Rwanda is concerned, Paul Rusesabagina is a Rwandan citizen.  And he was arrested.  He was tried and convicted along with 20 others – 20 other accomplices for serious crimes they committed against Rwandan citizens and which he committed while residing in the United States.  And this was done lawfully under both Rwandan and international laws.  Therefore, Rwanda will continue to abide by our rules, and the decisions that were made by our judiciary.  And we request our partners to respect Rwanda’s sovereignty, Rwanda’s laws, and its institutions.  That’s what I can state about your question on Rusesabagina.

MODERATOR:  Yeah, next question, Washington Post.

QUESTION:  I’m going to sit so I can read my questions so excuse me.  Secretary Blinken, as you mentioned in your opening remarks, there have been reports of – regarding harassment and arrest of domestic dissidents by the Rwandan Government along with reports of transnational aggression, including the use of spyware and alleged attacks against opponents in South Africa and Mozambique and elsewhere.  Some members of the U.S. Congress are calling on the Biden administration to withhold foreign assistance and employ the Khashoggi Ban.  At the same time, these messages have been made before U.S. officials.  Did you hear anything today that indicates there will be a change in these actions?

And going back to Paul Rusesabagina, now deemed as wrongfully detained, based on what I heard from the Foreign Minister, it doesn’t seem like the Rwandan Government is prepared to release him.  How do you believe this can be resolved?  And do you believe this issue – along with the others I mentioned – will pose a threat to the two countries’ ability to work together smoothly?

And for you, Mr. Minister, what is your response to the allegations of domestic and transnational repression and to U.S. advocacy on these points?  And what is your – how do you see the U.S. response to your government statements about Paul Rusesabagina’s alleged actions?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Missy, thanks very much.  First, let me start by saying this: we recognize Rwanda’s incredibly difficult history, the 1994 genocide.  And we know the ongoing legacy of that history of the genocide.  But criminalization of some individual’s participation in politics, harassment of those who express opposition to the current government, we believe underlie future peace, stability, and success – success which has already been extraordinary in the case of Rwanda over the last 20 plus years, but which will not reach its full potential if those who express disagreements – criticism of whatever the current government happens to be are repressed in their ability to do that whether that is here in Rwanda or abroad.

And to that point, as you noted, we established what is called the Khashoggi Ban to make clear that any country that engages in repressive actions against those who criticize it, if those persons are in the United States, they face consequences for those actions.

I’ve shared all of this with President Kagame today.  It’s not for me to characterize his response, but these are concerns that I shared.  And I did that, again, in the context of making clear our desire for an even stronger, even more productive relationship between the United States and Rwanda, building on what Rwanda has done so successfully, building on what we’ve already done together.  But these are issues that we care deeply about, our Congress cares deeply about, the American people care deeply about.

I also shared with President Kagame that in many ways our own focus and motivation on these issues goes back to our very founding.  It’s maybe a little bit particular in some ways to the United States, but it’s in our DNA.  As you heard President Biden discuss, we come – we came together as a country, not around any particular group, any particular race, religion, ethnicity.  We came together around an idea, a shared idea that all are created equal and that all are entitled to the same basic inalienable rights.  And of course, we have never made fully good on that ideal.  We’re in constant search of it, constant efforts to form our own more perfect union, which is an acknowledgment that we’re not perfect and this is a constant, ongoing effort.  But we do it openly, we do it transparently, we deal with our challenges, as I think the world can see.  And so by way of explanation as well why we care so deeply about what we believe to be universal rights, not simply those that pertain to Americans.

And again, on the – on the matter and the case of Paul Rusesabagina, all I can share with you today is that I raised this with President Kagame.  We had a discussion about it.  I’m not going to, again, characterize that.  We’ll continue to engage, and I’ll also follow up with the family.

FOREIGN MINISTER BIRUTA:  Yes.  When Rwanda deals with people who commit crimes against our country and our people, we abide by laws, both national and international.  We know some other countries have their own method to deal with those kind of people, those criminals who commit crimes against their own countries.  But as far as Rwanda is concerned, we do it along with, in respect of our laws, and in respect of international laws.  Any other people could qualify these as international repression or whatever, but when we deal with people who commit crimes against our country, against our people, we abide by the laws, both national and international with total (inaudible).

MODERATOR:  Our next question, New Times.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  My name is Edwin Musoni from The New Times.  I’ll ask the minister and the Secretary of State.  Minister, a (inaudible) UN group of experts report indicated that the DRC army was supplying arms to FDLR, and it’s also – it also indicated that the FDLR commander under that arrangement ordered the shelling of Rwandan territory in May.

Now, this happens at a time when Rwanda is under pressure that it is allegedly supporting M23.  What is your take on that, and how can Rwandans be assured of their security?

Mr. Secretary, now given – given the fact that FDLR gets support from the Congolese army, how does the U.S. expect Rwanda to protect its borders against any attacks that happen like what happened in May?  And also at the same time, you cannot talk about FDLR without talking about the genocide.  They are responsible for the genocide.  Today, the United States remains the only country in the world that has deliberately refused to adopt the official definition of the genocide, the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.  Now, what’s the logic behind this deliberate stubbornness of the U.S. not adopting the genocide?  Yet as you said you stand by Rwanda.  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER BIRUTA:  Rwanda is not the cause of longstanding instability in eastern DRC, where we have over 130 armed groups, including the M23.  And the presence of the FDLR in the close collaboration with the army of the DRC has always been the most significant cause of insecurity.  And this enables the FDLR to conduct terrorist operations on Rwandan territory, something the Government of Rwanda cannot accept.  In Rwanda we always reserve the right to take necessary measures to protect its territorial integrity, its sovereignty, and to ensure the security of its people.  As we’ve said, Rwanda remains committed to the processes mandated by the African Union, and the other regional organization, which we hope the United States will continue to support for all of us to bring lasting peace to eastern DRC and to the entire region.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There are very credible reports of support for armed groups by all sides, including the FDLR by Congolese forces and M23 by Rwandans.  And our position is clear.  Whoever it’s by, whoever it’s to – that support needs to cease for any – any armed group.

When it comes to the FDLR, it has sought to conduct attacks on Rwanda and it’s supported hateful ideologies.  And we’ve seen support, as I said – we’ve seen reports of cooperation between Congolese forces and the FDLR.  I raised this directly with the president in the Congo, and we are pressing again for that support to cease, just as we’re pressing for any support to M23 to cease.

These groups need to end the violence, demobilize, and pursue talks with the government.  And as I noted, both leaders – here in Rwanda and in the Congo – made clear to me that they’re prepared to engage in talks with the various armed factions as necessary in order to pursue their demobilization in the context of the process led by President Kenyatta and others, the Nairobi process.  We’ll continue to support that.

And when it comes to recognition of the genocide and the horrors committed, we’ve been very clear about that.  I’ll have an opportunity to visit the memorial in just a few hours and to continuously take note, to take account of the almost unfathomable suffering of so many people that remains present in people’s lives.  And we’ll continue to work at the United Nations for every appropriate recognition of history, even as we do everything possible every single day to make sure that that history is never repeated.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Final question from (inaudible).

QUESTION:  Hi.  Following up on that same issue, Mr. Secretary, you mentioned your conversations with both the president of Rwanda and of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  And in Congo, you heard many complaints about the violence in eastern Congo and the support of Rwanda supposedly for some of the armed groups to the extent that they demanded sanctions be imposed against Rwanda.  And yet here, you probably heard a certain amount of popular support for the M deux trois group.  So how do you reconcile those two very disparate positions in your quest for negotiations as you described?  Did you specifically ask President Kagame to end the support for M23?  And then finally, do you now put the M23 and the FDLR on the same ground?  It seems like they’re almost making a – an equivalency between the two.  So I’m interested about that.

And then Mr. Minister, the U.S. Government is asking you to end support for M23.  How do you respond to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  So it’s a matter of principle that applies equally.  This is not a question of weighing one group against another.  There’s a basic principle that there should not be support coming from governments or coming from their entities like their armed forces for arming groups like – non-state groups like M23 or like FDLR.  And that’s a basic principle, because to the extent that that happens, that’s likely to perpetuate conflict and violence, not end it.  It doesn’t suggest one way or another equivalence between groups or some valuation, but the basic principle is very important and it’s very important here.  And yes, I specifically raised that with President Kagame just as I raised it with President Tshisekedi in the DRC.

We also raised another principle, which is the territorial integrity of states and the need to protect that.  And we also raised another principle, which is that leaders have a responsibility to speak out against hate speech – something that we’ve seen, unfortunately, increasingly in recent months with regard to the Congo, and in particular, directed at certain communities, including Rwandaphones, and directed at the UN and its mission there.

So this is something that I raised in both – both meetings with both leaders.  And the question, of course, is now turning principle into practice, and that’s what we talked about.  And the best way to do that, in our judgment, is to pursue the African-led mediation efforts through the Nairobi process.  President Kenyatta has now been designated by the East African Community to carry on that mission, even when he is no longer in office as president of Kenya.  President Lourenço from Angola is also very engaged.  And what we heard from both presidents is their appreciation for our own efforts, the United States efforts to support that African-led mediation effort.  We’ll continue to do that just as we’ve been doing in the months leading up to this visit.

FOREIGN MINISTER BIRUTA:  Whatever Government of Rwanda could do in DRC or in our region would be about protecting our people and protecting the territorial integrity of our country and its sovereignty.  It is not about supporting M23.  And if we want a lasting solution for the problems in eastern DRC, in our region, we just need to deal with the root causes of the problem, which is the presence and the preservation of the FDLR, the FDLR in eastern DRC and their cooperation with FRDC.  Let me remind you that they have together, jointly they have shelled the Rwandan territory three times – on 18th March, on 27 May, on – and on 10th June.  And we have always warned the Government of DRC – we ask them to stop those attacks.  And if we need to get a lasting solution, we should go to the root causes of the problems, which is the genocide they acknowledge being spread in our region from – the genocide which took place here in 1994 – and the preservation of the FDLR, which is a genocidal force.

And there are mechanism in place, the original mechanism which were agreed on by the African Union, by the East African Community, by the ICJR, and we just need to go to those mechanism (inaudible) us with them, and you permit them.  And we find solutions to the existing political issues in DRC, and hopefully we achieve peace for all of us.  Eastern DRC – DRC needs peace, but we also need peace for us to develop our countries.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Secretary Blinken.  Thank you, Minister.  Thank you much – thank you very much, everybody. (Inaudible.)

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