Dictators’ Democratic Friends
Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine, emergency medicine and epidemiology. In 1989 he went on mission with Médecins sans Frontières for the first time, and undertook long-term missions in Uganda, Somalia and Thailand. He returned to the Paris headquarters in 1994 as a programs director. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the director of communications, and later as director of operations until May 2000 when he was elected president of the French section of Médecins sans Frontières. He was re-elected in May 2003 and in May 2006. From 2000 to 2008, he was a member of the International Council of MSF and a member of the Board of MSF USA. He is the co-editor of "Medical innovations in humanitarian situations" (MSF, 2009) and Humanitarian Aid, Genocide and Mass Killings: Médecins Sans Frontiéres, The Rwandan Experience, 1982–97 (Manchester University Press, 2017).
This op-ed article was published on 27 October 2017 in the French newspaper Marianne.
All dictators have friends – yes, even the North Korean leader. He, too, has an American buddy – a retired NBA basketball player who goes on TV to defend his friend when the latter receives international criticism. The purpose of this article is to explore the role played by leading figures, such as politicians, researchers, professors, scholars, artists, athletes, journalists and, of course, humanitarian workers who live in a democracy and support a dictatorship. There is no dearth of famous examples. French actor Gérard Depardieu declared his undying love for Vladimir Putin, while French politicians Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Ségolène Royal did the same for Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, respectively. In addition to these recent examples, the entire history of authoritarian regimes is replete with less well-known examples of such personalities.
So why should we be concerned about those who act as advocates for tyrannical and murderous regimes while they themselves enjoy the comforts of democracy? This concern becomes necessary when they claim the right to determine, as part of a democratic discussion, who can or cannot express an opinion about a regime they support. This disturbing threshold has just been crossed in the small world of Rwandan studies by a group of authors who wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Rwanda: le ‘Que sais-je?’ qui fait basculer l'histoire” that was published in the newspaper Le Monde on 25 September 2017.
The context in which this op-ed appeared requires a few clarifications. Rwanda’s strong man, who has been in power since 1994, was reelected president on August 4 of this year with 98.8% of the vote. Shortly before, he had amended the Constitution so he could run again. If he wants, he can now remain in power until 2034. The constitutional change, other candidates banned from campaigning for office, and the grotesque nature of the result gave the Rwandan republic a poor image on the international stage.
The authors of the above-mentioned op-ed chose this moment to attack Filip Reyntjens, author of a ‘‘Que sais-je?” book on the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis, which was published in April 2017. They especially rebuked the Belgian lawyer for criticizing Kagamé's party:
‘‘EVEN THOUGH HE FEIGNS SCIENTIFIC OBJECTIVITY, THIS BOOK IS NOTHING MORE THAN A SCATHING POLITICAL ATTACK. THE ENTIRE TEXT SEEMS TO BE GUIDED BY A SINGLE GOAL: TO DENOUNCE THE RWANDAN PATRIOTIC FRONT (RPF) AS GUILTY OF COUNTLESS CRIMES AND ‘PERHAPS’ EVEN ‘GENOCIDE’ IN CONGO AND TO CONDEMN THE CURRENT REGIME IN KIGALI, WHICH [SUPPOSEDLY] IS CARRYING ON THIS CRIMINAL HERITAGE.”
Because Reyntjens did not present the unique gravity of the genocide against the Tutsis as an isolated event but placed it in its historical context – as a series of mass crimes, some of which were ordered by RPF leaders – he was accused of being a denialist. This can only cause concern for those who, like us, witnessed the deaths of hundreds of their Médecins Sans Frontières Rwandan colleagues and who have every intention of continuing to remember these crimes, whoever their perpetrators.
In a democracy, such an insulting charge, that of denying the reality of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, can lead to a damaged reputation, isolation and a ruined career. In Rwanda, saying that there were victims of mass violence other than those killed by the genocide perpetrators has more dramatic consequences. Anyone who keeps raising these issues is insulted, dispossessed, imprisoned, tortured or executed. This is the response to those who still wonder if dictators’ democratic friends are ridiculous or dangerous. They’re both – unlike Reyntjens who, whatever his mistakes, does not support either torturers or murderers.
 “Rwanda: the ‘Que-sais-je’ book that distorts history”
 Literally “What do I know?”: a series of informational booklets on various topics written by experts in accessible language
To cite this content :
Jean-Hervé Bradol, “Dictators’ Democratic Friends”, 27 octobre 2017, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/war-and-humanitarianism/dictators-democratic-friends
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