MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. We will hear from a group of women who have all been diagnosed with the disease. We'll hear about how they're trying to rebuild their health and their lives. That conversation in just a few minutes.
But first we want to focus on a story about one country's rise on the international stage. That nation is Rwanda. Many Americans still think of that country in connection with the 1994 genocide there that killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in a matter of weeks.
Now Rwanda is back in the news after winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council. However, that achievement came with some controversy. There are reports from U.N. experts that accuse the Rwandan government of supporting a violent insurgency in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
And Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us, Minister. Welcome.
LOUISE MUSHIKIWABO: Thank you.
MARTIN: Well, obviously we want to talk about the controversy but we do want to note that Rwanda did receive 148 out of 193 votes in the U.N. General Assembly to join the Security Council, and I wanted to ask what this means to your country.
MUSHIKIWABO: This vote on the Security Council for my country means a lot. It takes us back to 1994, when Rwanda was in the Security Council, and it was a government that was committing genocide back home. So this is very symbolic that in 2014, which will be exactly 20 years after the genocide, we will be back on the Security Council a totally different country.
So it's very significant. And I think also this is significant because despite the dark history of Rwanda, we're now 18 years on, a country that can make a contribution to the Security Council. We cannot pretend to have solutions for every conflict region in the world, but we have some lessons we've learned ourselves.
We are very involved in peacekeeping around the world. We are in Darfur, we are in Liberia, we're in Haiti. So we are bringing something that is positive to the Security Council, including the conflicts in our own neighborhood of the DRC. It's an opportunity to be able to share both background and context and obviously work with other members to try and reach some solutions.
MARTIN: I was going to ask if you see the country's playing a specific role in particular conflicts. Do you see yourselves mainly as focusing on regional conflicts and offering your expertise there?
MUSHIKIWABO: The way the council functions is by, should I say, priority in terms of where peace is most needed. But for us, we came to the council as Africa's candidate. We were endorsed by entire African Union. So we come here with the sense that Africa's voice should be heard probably a bit louder and we're looking at a council whose large percentage of the work concerns the continent.
And so clearly bringing closer, should I say, Addis Ababa, the African Union, to New York is one of the things we would want to do as one of the three African countries on the Security Council.
MARTIN: And of course we do have to ask about the allegations...
MARTIN: ...against your government, that senior members of your government have been accused of arming and directing the M23 rebel group that is responsible for a violent insurgency inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. You've accused the U.N. experts - there was a leaked U.N. report of having a bias against Rwanda.
The Wall Street Journal reported that you said, and I'm quoting here: Who are these unelected, unaccountable individuals to abuse the authority granted to them by the U.N. to pursue political vendettas and deny even basic procedural fairness to a country like Rwanda? Why would Rwanda be the target of such a vendetta?
MUSHIKIWABO: That's a good question. It would not be the first time. There has been a number of reports - and by the way, this U.N. group of experts' reports have been very controversial in recent times, with countries like Ghana, in connection with the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire just a couple months ago, Somalia. So for the case of this report on Rwanda, it's flawed any way you look at it.
MARTIN: What is your government's relationship with the M23 rebels? Are there individuals in the government who are in contact with them, who are negotiating with them, even in pursuit of your own country's interests?
MUSHIKIWABO: You know what's been missing in this whole understanding of the M23 and other groups is the relationships between the DRC and Rwanda, between the communities across our border and ourselves. And that makes it very superficial in terms of what is happening in the DRC.
We have people in the DRC across our border who are of our culture and our language. So it would not be unusual to have people who speak our language on the other side. We have a history with the DRC. The current government was very much linked to Rwanda with the departure of Mobutu Sese Seko.
We have fought wars in Congo pursuing the remnants of the genocidal forces that had left Rwanda. So context is critical.
MARTIN: But I understand that you're saying that there are relationships, but I'm asking you specifically what is the relationship of your government with these rebels. Is there a sanctioned relationship with individuals in these rebel movements? I mean the specific allegation is that the defense minister is actually directing the rebels. And do you categorically deny that? Do you deny that that's the...
MUSHIKIWABO: Absolutely. It's wrong. And it's wrong because our Ministry of Defense and our minister and a number of officials have been working with Kinshasa, the government of Congo, on trying to resolve this. So to turn around and use this against the same people you have asked to help is disingenuous and as a result we are being distracted from what the real issue is. But in our view...
MARTIN: What is the real issue, by the way?
MUSHIKIWABO: The real issue is lack of state presence in eastern DRC, which has created this vacuum that attracts so many groups. It's not just M23. There are a number of armed groups who have various claims, and it's not the first time either. We've gone into a cyclical violent situation in the DRC for the last many years.
And so because to this point the actors in Congo, the partners away from the region, Western countries, have been looking at the surface and not touching the root causes of these issues. It's one thing to get rid of a mutiny, but it's better to get rid of what is causing a mutiny.
MARTIN: If I may, what I think I hear you saying is that the issue here is that this is a lawless region and that it would not serve Rwanda's interests to further undermine the government in that area. Is that your argument?
MUSHIKIWABO: I mean I wouldn't say it's a lawless region. There is some level of municipal presence. There is, you know, there is a governor in North-Kivu. There are some structures but they are faulty and it's been like that for a long time. But for sure, Rwanda's interests are better served working directly with the government, not through some proxy groups that have no clear future.
And this is what we've been doing with Kinshasa since 2009, and so without any good reason, why would Rwanda be engaged in destabilizing? We have a country that has a lot going for it and we need to protect it. We need stability. Therefore there is no reason for Rwanda to be involved.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with the foreign minister of Rwanda, Louise Mushikiwabo. That nation was just named to the United Nations Security Council. And just one more question on this point, and we do want to talk about other things that are going on in Rwanda, but part of the ongoing tension between the Democratic Republic of Congo and your nation stems from the 1994 genocide.
And I understand that it is believed that there are still a number of people who are believed responsible for the murders during the genocide who are living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I wonder - does your nation feel that these people are an ongoing threat to your security? Do you feel that the government is making appropriate efforts to bring these people to accountability?
MUSHIKIWABO: The world, the international community, has mismanaged the genocide. Post-genocide Rwanda and the region has suffered from these remnants of the genocidal groups. They are, for the last many years, at the root of a lot of instability - the rapes of women in Eastern Congo - and somehow we in Rwanda feel that the responsibility of so many countries, including the United Nations itself, by the way, has not been there.
And as a result, yes, the instability in Eastern Congo, the bitterness about Rwanda in Congo bordering Rwanda, has to do with these people who have been vanquished, but their thinking and the ideology is still intact.
MARTIN: I feel that it is appropriate to mention at this point that you also had family members who were killed during the genocide, and I do want to offer my condolences...
MUSHIKIWABO: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...for that. I wanted to ask, is that part of what you hope to, as a nation, bring to your service on the United Nations Security Council? Is there a sense that there would have been more responsiveness on the part of the international community if there had been more of a presence at that time? The government was a presence at that time. So I don't know. What's the message there?
MARTIN: I mean the government was there.
MUSHIKIWABO: The message there is for countries like our country and other countries, particularly African countries, it would serve the United Nations and it would serve the world, if there was proper attention paid to these situations.
MARTIN: But except that countries then often complain that the international community is nothing in their internal affairs.
MUSHIKIWABO: If the international community could meddle positively - so to speak. There is a role to play by the international community and our partners. The problem is they're not always supportive of what we want to do, what we think would serve our citizens better. The solutions that we think would be appropriate is what we should be discussing with our partners, not them coming with their own way of trying to solve our problems, which in the end serves them and doesn't serve us. That's really where the problem is.
MARTIN: Well, but in the case of the current case of Rwanda, Rwanda is now in the headlines - not just for its new security council, see, but also for a rising economy that's been hailed as one of the fastest growing in the region. A tremendous focus on education, a tremendous focus on, say, access to technology and so forth. On the other hand, there've also been criticisms that the president, Paul Kagame, is becoming a strongman who is very interested in suppressing any dissent.
MUSHIKIWABO: Well, a few things. First of all, Rwanda can only be the product of its own experience in the last many years. By any measure, my country has done very well. We were facing incredible challenges and today we have a country that is not just growing economically, where innovation is encouraged, where young people are very excited about their life and their future, where we have embraced technology, where, you know, 56 percent of women are in parliament. And, you know, we are doing very well as a country. We have universal health care for 98 percent of our citizens. A lot of good things have happened to our country. But by no means should Rwanda be seen as an angel country. We have challenges. We are facing both politically and economically some serious issues, many of them stemming from our history of the genocide, but just the normal developmental challenges. We have to fight politically the temptation of ethnic politics, which given our history, would be devastating, so that comes with some problems. We have to overcome the cost of energy in our country to continue to build our economy with the whole reconciliation process for a country that is not even two decades after the genocide. It's still ongoing.
MARTIN: Is it your argument that a firm hand is what is needed to suppress the lingering tendency towards ethnic conflict? Is that your argument?
MUSHIKIWABO: I would say and really, first of all, a man like President Kagame is a man who is bound to have enemies. Great men have enemies. There's no question about it. But his sense of discipline, his sense of delivery and focusing on results has been very good for our country. There is no question about it. So, but in leading a country, one has to balance so many things. And I think history would look at Paul Kagame as probably the best thing that could happen to Rwanda after the genocide.
MARTIN: But why is it that there are so many individuals who were once supporters of his who participated in the government who either wind up in jail or who have left the country? Shouldn't a vibrant country be able to handle a level of political discourse or disagreement?
MUSHIKIWABO: Would you think it's unusual that people fall out with their former employees and their employers and leadership gets people who are not happy about - what's happening in Rwanda is no different from what would happen in any other country. I just think sometimes Rwanda is held to standards that are not realistic.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask you something that you mentioned about. One of the things that has been noted about Rwanda is opening up leadership to women. As you noted, 56 percent of the seats in your nation's parliament are held by women. That compares to about 17 percent of women who hold seats in the United States Congress. I wanted to ask you that do you think that is having - what effect do you think that is having on the way leadership is practiced, the way government is practiced in your country, to the degree you feel comfortable generalizing. Often people don't, but it is striking.
MUSHIKIWABO: Tremendous, tremendous effect. Women in Rwanda have had a very important role to play in rebuilding the country. Women were part of the struggle of liberation. Women were victimized more than anybody during the genocide. So we have almost now reached a point where the involvement of women, the ideas coming from women, are very valued in my country. And there is no question also that for a developing country like ours, women are at the center of everything development. They are linked to the health of the family. They are linked to the education. They are linked to business, to investment, women are on the marketplace. So it's very clear to us that countries that would ignore women would do it at their own risk.
MARTIN: What effect though, do you think it is having on the life of the country to have that many women in positions of leadership, positions of national leadership? Can you say?
MUSHIKIWABO: I think what the advancement and the presence of women in many interesting positions in my country does, first is to change our country in terms of its future. You know, the education of girls is a priority in Rwanda today because educated girls eventually make good decisions about themselves as individuals, but also about society. They have a choice. They have more opportunities. And also it's a way to repair what was done wrong in our own history. But in terms of the impact, there is no question that for our economy, for our legal makeup as a country, the demands of women in our society are being met in a way that we even didn't think about back when we were in times of trouble.
MARTIN: Louise Mushikiwabo is the foreign minister of Rwanda. She was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Minister, I do hope we'll speak again. Thank you for joining us.
MUSHIKIWABO: Thank you.
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MARTIN: Just ahead, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time when we're all encouraged to think pink. But we wanted to get behind the slogans and find out what it all means to survivors and people fighting the disease now.
ANN SILBERMAN: I just wanted to live my life and not be associated with all this breast cancer joy.
MARTIN: Personal stories of fighting and surviving breast cancer. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.