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Declassified documents ‘could shed light on Rwandan genocide’

Human skulls exhibited at the Genocide memorial in Nyamata, where thousands were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Human skulls exhibited at the Genocide memorial in Nyamata, where thousands were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Simon Maina, AFP

President François Hollande has announced that a trove of Elysée palace documents about the 1994 Rwandan genocide will be declassified. For David Servenay, an expert on France’s role in the event, it’s a small step that could lead to big revelations.

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France was an ally of the ethnic Hutu government that ruled Rwanda before the genocide, but it has repeatedly denied accusations by President Paul Kagame and his supporters of complicity in the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis.

In an effort to ease tensions between Paris and Kigali, France’s Hollande said last year he was committing to a new spirit of transparency in relation to the 1994 tragedy.

French journalist David Servenay has written two books on the Rwandan genocide. Last year he published “In the name of France” (Au nom de la France, La Découverte), a work focused on former French president François Mitterrand’s administration and its share of the blame in the mass killings two decades ago.

France 24 asked him how the declassified documents will change the world’s knowledge about the genocide and how it will shape future relations between France and Rwanda.

France 24: The French public already knew some details of France’s relationship and military cooperation with the Hutu government, which was behind the 1994 genocide, thanks to internal Elysée papers leaked seven years ago. Can it expect to learn anything more from the forthcoming declassification?

David Servenay: We know there are still holes in France’s story, and we suspect that many documents will remain secret. But it will be interesting to see what information surfaces, especially in regard to special French forces operating clandestinely – or “discreetly”, to use the Elysée’s own terminology at that time – and which were on Rwandan soil as far back as 1990 and 1991.

The question of arms deliveries is another major and unresolved issue. Starting in mid-April 1994 the UN implemented an embargo on the sale or supply of arms to Rwanda, but we know that there were a number of arms shipments made by France, or orchestrated by France, around that time.

What will perhaps be most interesting is that the summaries of discussions at the Elysée include references to documents authored by other agencies, specifically by French intelligence services. So we will not have the original intelligence reports, but they are widely cited by president [Mitterrand’s] advisors and staff, and could contain very interesting insights.

F24: So is it more likely that the declassified documents will simply confirm existing accounts of the genocide?

D.S.: It’s unusual when archival documents offer a perfect picture of a past event, but they could help confirm or even refute certain suspicions. For example, on the subject of arms shipments, there are allegations that depend on very precise details, such as an eye-witness account, or a certain date. I think some questions will be answered, but I honestly don’t think the declassified documents will revolutionise our understanding of what happened in Rwanda at the time.

However, what is interesting about the Elysée’s announcement is that Hollande intends to continue this declassification process, extending it to documents consulted by a parliamentary commission that investigated the genocide in 1998. That commission had access to a lot of secret documents, and held a number of hearings whose transcripts were never fully published, and we know they contain important information.

F24: Will this gesture by Hollande help France improve strained ties with Rwanda or, on the contrary, will potentially embarrassing revelations widen the diplomatic divide?

D.S.:It’s a gesture that should move the countries closer. At the same time, I don’t think Rwandan authorities will be satisfied until a French government recognises in a clear and formal way some level of responsibility for what happened in their country. And I do not think it is Hollande’s intention to take that step. So the declassification of documents could improve relations, but neither country will fundamentally shift its position.

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