Context behind Quin’s allegations against Ghahraman

A counter to Phil Quin’s allegations against Golriz Gharaman by ‘Salt-Pile at Reddit, giving some well researched context, was posted in comments yesterday by Mefrostate but I think it deserves more of an airing.


Dirty Politics: the disturbing context behind Phil Quin’s allegations against Golriz Ghahraman.

As has been widely reported, Phil Quin recently accused Green MP Golriz Ghahraman of genocide denial and of supporting those accused of human rights abuses. One of the keystones of his accusations – even after his public apology – was a paper Ghahraman co-wrote with lawyer Peter Robinson in 2008, entitled Can Rwandan President Kagame be Held Responsible at the ICTR for the Killing of President Habyarimana? which was published in the Journal of International Criminal Justice.

Reading this paper, what really stood out to me was that it didn’t support any of Quin’s claims about it. Up until this point, I’d assumed Phil Quin was a well-meaning individual with a passionate interest in human rights which had led him to Rwanda, but that simply couldn’t account for the surprisingly large gap between what he claimed the paper said, and what it actually said. 1

My interest was piqued. Who was Phil Quin, and what on earth would make him misinterpret a dry legal paper about hypothetical jurisdictions as “genocide denial”?

The situation in Rwanda between 2011 and 2014, when Quin worked as a consultant for the Rwandan Government, is key to understanding his allegations. A comprehensive report produced that same year by Freedom House details an authoritarian, repressive regime. 2 Despite official democracy and a fairly robust electoral system, President Kagame won over 90% of the vote, and political opponents were allegedly harshly suppressed. There was little freedom of the press; extrajudicial killing and torture were allegedly common. Accusations of genocide played a role in civil suppression:

A 2001 law against “divisionism” and a 2008 law against “genocide ideology” have been used to stifle free speech by equating criticism of the regime with support for ethnic hatred. Government domination of civil society remains intense, and few vestiges of the independent press remain following several years of intense suppression. Even average citizens must censor their conversations, since open discussion of ethnicity is regarded as divisionism and can lead to imprisonment. (see also HRW)

Alleged human rights abuses by the Kagame Government in Rwanda had really been stacking up. A report by the US Department of State for 2013 summarized:

the government’s targeting of journalists, political opponents, and human rights advocates for harassment, arrest, and abuse; disregard for the rule of law among security forces and the judiciary; restrictions on civil liberties […]; arbitrary or unlawful killings, both within the country and abroad; disappearances; torture; harsh conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest; prolonged pretrial detention; executive interference in the judiciary; and government infringement on citizens’ privacy rights.

The report goes on to discuss brutality committed against citizens at the hands of the Rwandan Police, including beatings, forced confessions, and torture. It also discusses the denial of pre-trial rights and lack of access to defense lawyers.

In 2010, the year before Quin arrived, the Rwandan Government had been rocked by a controversial UN report which alleged serious war crimes committed by Kagame’s forces in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo during the Second Congo War4 By 2012, it emerged that a delayed UN report accused the Kagame Government of supporting and even commanding the notorious “M23” rebels who were accused of multiple war crimes. This connection was hotly denied by both the rebels and by Kagame.

How many of these allegations were true, and how many were concocted by the regime’s enemies as a kind of “whataboutism” (to somehow retrospectively justify genocide against Kagame’s ethnic group, as it alleges), is unclear. What is clear, however, is that one of President Kagame’s responses to these ongoing problems was to initiate a number of highly expensive Public Relations campaigns from 2009 onward, aimed at western political and financial elites, with campaign strategies which included going on the offensive towards those who criticized them (including NGOs), and presenting Kagame himself as a “democratic, visionary leader”.

Enter Phil Quin, who describes his time in Rwanda as follows:

Between 2011-2014, based in Kigali and New York, I consulted to the Government of Rwanda: setting up a whole-of-government communications operation, as well as assisting Rwandan Government as it successfully sought a UN Security Council berth; commemorate twenty years since the Genocide against the Tutsi; and navigate a raft of sensitive and complex diplomatic and political challenges.

In other words, Public Relations work for the Kagame Government? After his time as a Labour staffer Quin had what he describes as a “lacklustre career” as a Public Relations consultant before moving to Rwanda to, as he coyly put it, “train and supervise an emerging generation of communications professionals”. Certainly, Quin is pictured on a Rwandan Government website, giving Public Relations training to the Rwandan Police – a police force which stood accused of many human rights abuses at the time.

I can discover little about the specifics of how Quin helped to implement Rwandan PR strategies in the face of these complex political challenges, though he seems to have penned the odd attack in defence of Kagame here and there.5 But one telling glimpse is afforded in this blog entry by a former BBC World Service journalistin 2012. The journalist describes how Quin uses genocide denial accusations to try to silence reportage on the use of torture and “disappearance” in Rwandan military detention facilities. The reportage itself was based on an Amnesty International briefing to the UN.

In condemning Ghahraman for her role in acting as defence counsel for people accused of genocide, it seems likely that Quin has reached for a familiar narrative which he had almost certainly been using in his former capacity as an employee of the Kagame Government. This could account for how he came to see Robinson & Ghahraman’s legal article as some kind of attack on President Kagame, and therefore a legitimate target for his accusations of “genocide denial”.

Quin’s attack on Ghahraman makes more sense in this context. For example, his Newsroom article rather oddly begins by implying that the ICTR – set up to deal with the most serious war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity – compares unfavourably with gacaca courts, Rwanda’s effort to process the sheer volume of those accused of smaller roles in genocide through a grassroots process. Quin says gacaca is “rightly seen as best practice in post-conflict reconciliation”, but in fact it was controversial, not least because of its violation of fair trial rights; as Human Rights Watch notes, it curtailed the right to have adequate time to prepare a defence and ignored the accused’s right to a lawyer. This strange apples-and-oranges comparison makes more sense when one considers that emphasizing the narrative of gacaca as a “just solution” was a key strategic point in one of the Rwandan Government’s Public Relations campaign plans.

If you have a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. It’s clear now what Quin’s hammer was, but why did it take until now for him to try to nail Ghahraman with it?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but the timing suggests it is part of a wider smear campaign to discredit her as an MP (other examples include the Farrar post which dog-whistled on her refugee status) through creating doubt about her values, sincerity, and legitimacy. That this is in the wake of Manus Island negotiations with the Australian Government is unlikely to be coincidence.

If this is part of a coordinated attack, it’s obvious that with his lack of formal ties to the political right (as a “former Labour staffer”), and what seems to be unquestioningly taken as “cred” on Rwanda, Phil Quin is the right person to do this job. It should give us pause, though, that what we have here is an experienced political PR consultant who appears to be using tactics honed to silence people – tactics which were deliberately calculated to have a chilling effect on discussion around human rights abuses (and consequently on international attempts to preserve human rights) – and that these tactics are now being deployed right in the midst of New Zealand’s public discussion around refugees and immigration.

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Notes:

1. For a discussion of the substance of Quin’s misrepresentation of Robinson & Ghahraman, read Otago law professor Andrew Geddis’ take on it here, and University of London law professor Kevin Jon Heller’s take on it here. My own brief, informal summary of the paper’s actual content is here.

2. Freedom House is often criticized for favouring countries which are supported by the US. However, this means that Freedom House is probably biased in favour of the Kagame regime in Rwanda, as the US broadly supports it. For an in-depth discussion of how the US may have essentially funded Kagame’s invasion of Rwanda, see this article. For an alternative source for some of the information contained in the FH report, see HRW.

3. An actual report is available here. A brief overview of the report and of Rwanda’s denial is here.

4. Another of the Kagame Government’s PR issues was the alleged Rwandan backing, in this same war, of RCD troops who had participated in war-crimes against BaMbuti Pygmies also known as “Effacer le Tableau” – “erasing the board” – in 2003.

5. Around this time, Quin may also have met fellow Rwandan Government employee and communications expert Tom Ndahiro,whose opinion he quotes.