Despite opposition from human rights organisations that Rwanda, a nation that is interchangeably referred to as “an army with a state” and “soldiers without borders” be not admitted to the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Heads of Governments (CHOGM) meeting in Port-of-Spain in Trinidad and Tobago on November 29, 2009 accepted this former German and Belgian colony as the 54th member of the group of former British colonies.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a body that describes itself as ‘an independent, non-partisan, international non-governmental organisation’ founded by several Commonwealth professional associations in 1987 and ‘mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth’, had released a report aimed at assisting CHOGM “in arriving at a decision as to whether Rwanda should be admitted to Commonwealth membership.’
Saying Rwanda did not qualify for admission due to her serious human rights violations, let alone not having had any constitutional link to any Commonwealth country, the CHRI Report on Rwanda, prepared by Kenyan Prof Yashpal Ghai and Lucy Mathieson, had cautioned, “The decision the Commonwealth Heads of Governments make will be a precedent for the consideration of future applications. It is therefore critical that the decision is not rushed, but is made with great care, with a full consideration of the applicant’s record on human rights and democracy.”
Even before the decision had been arrived at, there was a feeling that Rwanda would be admitted to the club due to the country’s ‘excellent public relations machinery’ that ‘effectively play upon the conscience of the world, particularly Western states, by invoking victimhood of genocide’ and that had ‘succeeded in persuading the key members of the international community that it has an exemplary constitution emphasising democracy, power-sharing, and human rights which it fully respects’ would hold sway in Trinidad and Tobago. If it weren’t for lobbying and public relations, how does one explain the fact that President Paul Kagame of Rwanda just happened to be in Trinidad and Tobago on ‘a private visit’ as the Rwandan application was being considered by CHOGM?
But this should hardly be surprising as the Commonwealth itself elicits a lot of questions of how it promotes human rights, a cause that it alleges to be promoting among member countries alongside providing a shared set of values and legal principles from which to work.
The astounding silence and inaction of the Commonwealth during Kenya’s worst political crisis after the disputed 2007 presidential elections in which more than 1200 people were killed and the continued violation of human rights with total impunity by several member countries further compounds the question over whether the voluntary association of 53 independent ‘sovereign’ states almost all of which were previously part of the British Empire is a group of men and women on holiday.
It is undeniable that the Commonwealth machinery for enforcing human rights and disciplining errant states is undeveloped, ineffective and marked by a lack of political will. This clarifies why the Commonwealth hardly ever takes disciplinary measures against members who commit gross violation of human rights.
The application was a hurdle not just because Rwanda was not a former British colony but because of her complete disregardÂ for human rights, sovereignty of her neighbours, democratic principles and the repeated violations of the rule of law and international law. One needs to ask what the relevance of Rwanda’s admission is to the organisation, what benefits the Commonwealth will gain from aspiring to become universal and the effect of the admission of states without a history or understanding of the Commonwealth.
But there is a general feeling by the CHRI that many people misunderstand or at least are confused about Rwanda’s history, the politics of the 1994 genocide and the record of the government led by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) since the end of the genocide. As a result the initiative appealed for a report to be made about the country.
The 81-page report that is prepared by Prof Ghai, a distinguished scholar of constitutional law, human rights and democracy with assistance from Lucy Mathieson, the Programme Coordinator of CHRI’s Human Rights Advocacy, looks through Rwanda’s Application, The Commonwealth and Rules for Membership, Rwanda’s history and background, Rwanda’s eligibility for Membership of the Commonwealth considerations for a policy on admission and finally makes the necessary recommendations.
According to Prof Ghai, it does not make sense to admit a state that already does not satisfy Commonwealth standards. This, he says, would tarnish the reputation of the Commonwealth and confirm the opinion of many people and civic organisations that the leaders of its governments do not really care about democracy and human rights, and that its periodic solemn declarations are mere talk.
The admission of a state below the Commonwealth standards would deter the Commonwealth from admonishing existing members who default on the terms of membership, something it has not been exercising from time to time.
Prof Ghai further notes that admitting members with a poor record would drive a wedge between governments and their people, thus reducing the Commonwealth to a trade union of governments.
For a country to be admitted, the applicant should accept Commonwealth conventions, such as the use of the English language as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations, and acknowledge the role of Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the commonwealth.Â But controversial principles are those that require applicants to demonstrate commitment to democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression and equality of opportunity.
Why, then, will a country that is unwilling to stop oppression against her own citizenry wish to join the Commonwealth?
For Rwanda, it seems or at least as the CHRI report observes, this sudden interest has to do with her desire to further distance herself from France, link to the English-speaking world and strengthen her relations with the immediate Commonwealth neighbours Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.Â Rwanda also sees the Commonwealth as offering opportunities for higher education, particularly with Commonwealth scholarships and new commercial, trading and economic advantages and relations.
Above all else, the fact that Rwanda would feel very comfortable going to CHOGM retreats, secure in the knowledge that no one would raise questions about her gross violations of democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights, may be based on her great public relations machinery if not on the assurance that many Commonwealth member countries lack the moral authority to castigate Rwanda on anything.
By applying to join the Commonwealth it may appear that the country is interested in promoting the welfare of her citizenry; on the contrary, it is exceedingly hard to say what the ordinary Rwandans–those in the streets–think of the Commonwealth, even if they have heard of it at all. As the CHRI report shows, there is not much of a civil society that would be interested and would have views on the application. Due to strict restrictions on freedom of expression within the country it is also difficult for the citizens to oppose the position or policies of the government. However, chances are that the people know little about the application and probably care less.
Though accusing Rwanda of gross violation of human rights, the CHRI notes that Rwanda has ‘an excellent public relations machinery’ and that her leaders ‘effectively play upon the conscience of the world, particularly Western states, by invoking victimhood of genocide’. So effective is this machinery, CHRI says, that ‘it has succeeded in persuading the key members of the international community that [Rwanda] has an exemplary constitution emphasising democracy, power-sharing, and human rights which it fully respects’.
So what exactly is Rwanda guilty of?
CHRI says Rwanda uses her 2003 Constitution to suppress freedom of speech, that censorship is prevalent, that the government shuts down independent media outlets and newspapers and harasses journalists, and that there is little political freedom with the body that registers political parties being controlled by the ruling Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF).
Rwanda’s judiciary, CHRI says, has failed to investigate and prosecute members of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) for their involvement in human rights abuses and proven involvement in war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; that President Paul Kagame uses his power to give immunity from prosecution to some of those suspected of being the most serious perpetrators of human rights abuses and that Rwanda’s complicity in the illicit economy of the great lakes region, and its plunder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) natural resources.
Saying Rwanda bears the primary responsibility for the political and economic instability in the Great Lakes Region, CHRI accuses the central Africa nation of practising ‘a complex regional regime of illegal economic transactions, evasion of United Nations sanctions, arming of militias and criminal business organisations, and disregard of neighbours’borders and fiscal systems, which has greatly impoverished the people of the region’.
The RPF, CHRI notes, has used an extraordinary amount of violence, domestically and internationally, in the pursuit of its illegitimate aims and is responsibile for killing almost 500,000 persons, whether citizens or not, and is responsible for the deaths of many times more through displacement, malnutrition and hunger.
It has denied hundreds of thousands of children of the opportunity to go to school, and deprived millions of prospects of family and community life.
Saying ‘there are considerable doubts about the commitment of the current regime to human rights and democracy’ as it ‘has not hesitated to use violence at home or abroad when it has suited it,’ CHRI cautions that Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth ‘would send the signal, loud and clear, that the commitment of the governments of the Commonwealth countries to its values is shallow’.
However, it was CHRI that appeared to sound shallow to CHOGM when the club of the then 53 under the leadership of Queen Elizabeth II, welcomed Rwanda to the fold on November 29, 2009 as the 54th member.