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Sensemaker: Chained to a dictator

Sensemaker: Chained to a dictator

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Donald Trump arrived in New York ahead of a court appearance later today when he will face criminal charges.
  • Australia banned TikTok from government devices over security concerns. 
  • Nigel Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, died aged 91.

Chained to a dictator

On Sunday, the UK home secretary was asked about 12 Congolese refugees who were shot dead by Rwandan police five years ago. Suella Braverman said she was “not familiar with that particular case” and repeated her claim that Rwanda is a “safe” place to send asylum seekers. 

So what? First, Braverman should be aware of the incident. It has been mentioned repeatedly in government briefings, human rights reports and in the High Court. 

Second, Rwanda is not a safe place. President Paul Kagame’s 30 year-old regime has a track record of imprisoning, torturing, and assassinating political dissidents.

But the BBC interview underscores how important the Rwanda asylum scheme has become to the Conservatives and what the government is prepared to overlook to keep a flagship domestic policy alive.

Deal or no deal. The Rwanda asylum plan was announced in April 2022 in response to tens of thousands of people crossing the English Channel in small boats.

  • Until at least 2027, Britain gets to send hundreds of people a year to Rwanda for processing and resettlement in exchange for £140 million (so far). 
  • Because of High Court appeals in the UK, no asylum seekers have been sent to Rwanda yet. It is unlikely they will for years.

In the meantime, the Conservative government is desperate not to offend Rwanda in any way. 

A convenient death. As revealed in this week’s Slow Newscast, one of the last critical journalists in Rwanda, John William Ntwali, mysteriously died in January.

The official line is that Ntwali died when the motorbike taxi he was on was hit by a speeding car at 2:50am. But those who worked with Ntwali have their doubts:

  • Ntwali received threats from men calling themselves security agents before his death and was too scared to use a motorbike or go out at night;
  • the driver walked away with a minor shoulder injury, while Ntwali died immediately of his wounds; and
  • the trial was held with no observers present. There was no medical report or CCTV footage despite the capital Kigali being covered in security cameras.

“If you are deemed as critical [in Rwanda], curiously, the odds of you having an accident go up,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, an NGO. “His future was pretty defined and delineated. His future was either shut up and cross your fingers, leave the country, get arrested or have an accident.”

No questions asked. The UK government refused to comment on Ntwali’s death. 

It has also refused to condemn the horrors perpetrated by Rwandan-backed militias in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebels fighters from one particular group called M23 have wreaked havoc across the region for more than a year, forcing about 600,000 people to flee.

Rwanda denies any involvement. But the UN and the US have condemned it for supporting and arming the rebels. When something similar happened in 2012, Britain condemned Rwanda and cut off aid money until it withdrew its militias. But now it says nothing.

Instead, last month Braverman travelled to Rwanda to a new detention centre not far from where Ntwali died and tried to sell the country as a “safe” and “compassionate” way of stopping the “invasion” of British shores. It’s music to Kagame’s ears. 

Why? The Rwanda migrant deal now simply trumps all other concerns in the region. The Conservative party gets to say it’s tough on migration ahead of a general election expected next year. Almost 50 per cent of Brits support the policy, with ­highe­r levels among Conservative voters, according to one poll. If it fails, they can blame the courts and “lefty lawyers”.

Rwanda gets a big pot of cash, legitimacy abroad, and the backing of a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Everybody wins, apart from those on the boats. 


CBI latest
Last month, Tony Danker stepped down as director general of the CBI over misconduct complaints – including sexual harassment. Now more than a dozen women have alleged sexual misconduct by other senior figures at the UK’s largest business lobbying group. The Guardian was approached by the women after its reporting on Danker’s conduct led to an ongoing independent investigation at the organisation. The latest allegations include: a woman who said she was raped by a senior colleague at the CBI summer boat party in 2019; attempted sexual assault by a manager at the same party; explicit images repeatedly sent by a senior manager to junior female staff; a manager propositioning a woman after she felt pushed to drink more alcohol, and widespread use of cocaine at CBI events. The CBI has now included these complaints in the investigation and said it “has treated” and will continue to treat workplace conduct with the “utmost seriousness”. 


Cheating chatbots
Turnitin, the software used by universities to detect plagiarism from students, is launching a preview of a new tool that it claims can detect work written by generative AI like ChatGPT. ChatGPT’s release last year quickly raised concerns about students using the tool, given its ability to generate long sections of text that often read as if written by a human. But some universities, including Cambridge, have reportedly opted out of the new service, partly due to concerns that the software could falsely accuse students of cheating. The Washington Post ran its own experiment and found the software did exactly that, flagging part of one innocent student’s essay as AI-generated. Turnitin claims the detector is 98 per cent accurate, but that “given that our false positive rate is not zero, you as the instructor will need to apply your professional judgment, knowledge of your students, and the specific context surrounding the assignment.”

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Social care cuts
In December 2021 the UK government outlined a “10-year vision” for adult social care. That vision included pledging “at least” £500 million over the next three years for reforms that would “transform” support for the social care workforce. Today, the Department of Health has confirmed the funding has now been halved to £250 million. The social care minister, Helen Whately, said the refreshed package “focuses on recognising care with the status it deserves”. Care providers and health policy experts firmly disagree. A coalition of charities who support social care said the measures “aren’t remotely enough to transform social care”, with one charity leader calling it an “insult” to the sector. Particularly concerning omissions from today’s announcement include the £300 million previously promised to improve the supply of supported housing and £25 million for helping unpaid carers. Money speaks louder than words. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

State hostages
Around the world, the use of state hostage-taking is increasing. Around 11 US nationals were detained each year in the decade to 2022, a 175 per cent increase on the previous decade. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being held in Russia on charges of espionage, is widely seen as a Moscow state hostage. The exact number of UK citizens who are arbitrarily detained or held hostage is not publicly available – but the chair of a parliamentary group says the UK government is “failing British citizens” in its approach. A report by the foreign affairs committee, launched after Iran released Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, criticises the “inconsistency and clumsiness” of how ministers communicate with the families of detainees. It calls for a “zero tolerance” approach and the creation of a new role equivalent to the US special envoy for hostage-taking. “Abductor states weaponise the citizenship of British nationals to achieve their geopolitical goals,” says Alicia Kearns, the chair of the committee.


Iran students
Last week, two women in Iran were queuing in front of a shop counter. A man approached one of the women, who was not covering her hair, then quickly picked up a tub of yoghurt and poured it over both of them. One positive result: the shopkeeper chased the man out of the shop when previously he may have been too scared to intervene. But the northeastern city of Mashhad, where the attack took place, issued arrest warrants for both women as well as the man who committed the attack, and also targeted the women for breaking Iran’s strict dress code. The shop owner received a warning. Growing numbers of women have been refusing to cover their hair after the death in police custody last year of a 22 year-old Mahsa Amini. But the regime is refusing to give way; Iran’s universities will reportedly ban women who refuse to wear the hijab after the interior ministry vowed there would be no retreat or tolerance on the issue.

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Will Brown

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Jess Winch, and James Wilson.

Photographs Getty Images, PA/Alamy, Tom Pilston for Tortoise

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