Rwanda and the Commonwealth

Event summary by Dr Kiran Hassan

This online event discussed the upcoming CHOGM in Kigali, Rwanda,

The Institute’s Director Dr Sue Onslow opened the discussion by saying that when Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009, opinion was divided on its membership. At the time, the country had made remarkable progress towards reconciliation and development following the catastrophe of the 1994 genocide. However, the prominent Kenyan lawyer Professor Yash Ghai argued that membership was premature as the country did not yet meet the Harare Principles. At the 2018 CHOGM in London, Rwanda’s offer to host the next summit was accepted by heads. Since then CHOGM has been postponed twice; there has also been a marked international trend of authoritarianism and populist nationalism, and an associated erosion of civic and human rights. A similar debate has emerged around the profile of the Commonwealth and the contradictions of the inclusion of allegedly repressive member states in a values-based association. Is the 2013 Commonwealth Charter aspirational, or a roadmap? She invited the panel of speakers which included Ms Michela Wrong (Author of Do Not Disturb, The Story of a Political Murder ad an African Regime Gone Bad), Professor Phil Clark (SOAS) and Mr Andrew Mitchell (Member of Parliament) to join this debate and reflect on Rwanda, the Commonwealth summit and the Charter.

Author / Journalist Ms Michela Wrong

Ms Wrong was deeply critical of the government of President Paul Kagame. In her view, President Kagame is all about the image and will ensure that Kigali meeting is presented in a positive light. However, all is not what it seems in Rwanda: it is not only the poorest country in Africa but its people are also heavily surveyed. Her detailed remarks referred to past political assassinations, incarceration, detention, the muzzling of main-stream media and use of sophisticated software to monitor and silence critical voices on social media platforms. She argued that there is a need for deeper debate on Commonwealth membership of countries such as Rwanda. In her view, the Commonwealth as an organisation will suffer considerable reputational damage by holding the CHOGM in Kigale. She concluded the organisation will be remembered in history as smugly unaccountable, politically co-opted and morally bankrupt for backing a government which has not hesitated to use violence at home and abroad. Instead, the Commonwealth should openly denounce the Kagame regime and instead engage with Rwandan civil society to support democratization and human rights.

Professor Phil Clark (SOAS) stressed the need to view the Commonwealth and Rwanda with a fresh perspective. He proposed three ways to do this:

Firstly, the Commonwealth so far has been only linked with the view of post-colonial critique. He proposed that academics will need to ask fresh questions, which show policy initiative and relevance in regard to the Commonwealth.

Secondly, he pointed to double standards with which Commonwealth countries are treated. In his view, vocal disapproval of small and non-white states such as Sri Lanka and Rwanda as hosts on the grounds of human rights violations was in stark contrast to the lack of criticism of Australia and the

UK when acting as CHOGM hosts. This was not acceptable and had become blatant when Britain and Australia were violating human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Aboriginal communities and the ‘Windrush’ deportations scandal.

Thirdly, he pressed that Rwanda is perceived by the international community through a partial negative lens. Rwanda has overcome huge challenges and should be given credit for this. Post genocide, the country has come out of a repeated revenge cycle and is socially and economically stable. Compared to its neighbours, Rwanda is successful in tackling its health care and education needs, which has drastically improved daily life. The Commonwealth needs to stop viewing Rwanda with a Western centric lens which provides a partial picture of the lived reality.

MP Mr Andrew Mitchell

Mr Mitchell was delighted to participate in a forum which he thought would offer him an opportunity to debate on this very important topic with open disagreement. He pointed out that President Paul Kagame is highly respected leader in Africa because his achievements in Rwanda are easy to see. Neither Britain nor the US had intervened to stop the genocide, unlike the RPF. He argued that under President Kagame, over a million people have returned to Rwanda, figures which speak for stability and progress. Mr Mitchell did not believe that the current Rwandan government was using mass surveillance to control or muzzle voices. He gave two reasons for his conviction that most Rwandans are quite happy with the way the Rwandan government functions: firstly, Rwanda’s progress towards economic independence, and secondly, President Kagame has provided safety and stability to thousands of Rwandans. Safety is a basic human right and the Rwandan government especially with the country’s fraught history should be applauded for providing a safe environment. He concluded the Commonwealth is potentially a wonderful North/South organisation but punches way below its weight.

In the robust debate and exchange which followed, all speakers criticised the UK’s recent Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda, although for different reasons.

Dr Kiran Hassan is a co-ordinator of Media Freedom Initiative at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London