The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) came to a close on Saturday 25 June 2022 after five days in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Under the theme ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming,’ the 26th Meeting of the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth of Nations included four forums focused on women, youth, people and business after a two-year delay due to COVID-19. A speech from Prince Charles discussed the Commonwealth’s roots which “run deep into the most painful period of our history” and addressed the movement of many Caribbean nations toward dropping the British monarchy as “for each member country to decide” (Guardian). Despite addressing topics such as health care, climate change and the war in Ukraine, discussions of host-country Rwanda’s human rights abuses, which many feel are misaligned with the Commonwealth’s overall goals, were glaringly absent (New York Times).
Many agree with New York Times’ East Africa correspondent Abdi Latif Dahir, who suggests the Commonwealth has “clear principles” on paper, yet “putting them into practice has been elusive, particularly as many of its member states experienced democratic backsliding and some outright cracked down on press freedom.” Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, told the Times that Commonwealth meetings “have either been letdowns or disasters.” Others such as Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Pretoria, see the Commonwealth as an “not an association of equals but a terrain or stage where Britain can have greater influence” following their departure from the European Union (Reuters).
The Commonwealth’s recently reappointed Secretary-General Patricia Scotland has a more optimistic view of the organization, which she sees as “a bedrock for member states, rooted in a shared history, collective aspirations and progressive solutions.” “At a time when multilateralism is under serious strain, CHOGM offers a vital forum to deliver the objectives of member states and an opportunity to draw upon all the talents of the member states to deliver a smarter, more resilient, prosperous, confident and sustainable Commonwealth,” she stated. Babala Hassan Atiku, a Ugandan who took part in the Commonwealth Youth Forum, expressed hope as well. “Unlike the past, we are now at the table. We just need to know what we want and go after it,” he told Reuters.
Michela Wrong, a British author and former journalist covering Africa, argues that Rwanda should never have been the chosen venue because “this endorsement of Kagame’s rule sends out a really worrying signal for the future of the Commonwealth” (DW). Rated ‘Not Free’ by Freedom House’s annual study, Rwanda under President Paul Kagame has repeatedly faced accusations of crackdowns against journalists and destabilization of neighboring countries. Yet, mentions of disappearances and unexplained deaths failed to make the agenda in a meeting supposedly focused on democratic values. While many important topics were discussed, with great power comes great responsibility. The eye’s of the world were turned to Rwanda and mentions should have been made regarding these issues both in Rwanda and in general, as they are not unique to the Great Lakes region.
Representing 2.5 billion people, the 56-nation Commonwealth was formed under the shared values of democracy, freedom of expression and peace as former British colonies began to achieve independence. Ahead of the meeting, a group of 21 rights organizations authored a letter imploring the meeting’s attendees to stress the issue of human rights in Rwanda. The Commonwealth also faces the difficult challenge of dealing with the legacy of colonialism and slavery, while continuing to look to the future and empowering the next generation of leaders.
Despite numerous issues, the meetings overall have promise. As pointed out by Caribbean youth delegate Kendell Vincent, the forum is a chance for the next generation of leaders to connect and engage surrounding issues such as climate change, conflict and COVID-19 which disproportionately affects the youth (DW). The Commonwealth’s goals provide an important symbol of democracy, decolonization and peace, yet these values are contradicted by its location in a country wracked with human rights abuses. When given a global audience, issues of human rights must be addressed, especially by an organization who prioritizes these values. The Commonwealth must continue to strive for their founding principles and hold each other accountable for freedom, peace and protection of human rights, from London to Lomé.