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The Rwanda scheme and the uses and abuses of the Commonwealth

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British ministerial speeches about the Commonwealth are so predictable that it is tempting to play a sort of ‘buzzword bingo’ with them. ‘A third of the world’s population’ (tick), ‘rich in diversity’ (tick), ‘a unique soft-power network’ (tick), ‘the dedicated service of Her Majesty the Queen’ (tick). If you pack in all the familiar elements, you can easily fill half an hour without ever having to acknowledge that the Commonwealth hasn’t done much of interest or value for decades. There was an expectation in some quarters that Brexit would increase the significance of the Commonwealth. But it was never clear why this would, in itself, suddenly transform an under-resourced and notoriously unfocused organisation into an effective vehicle for UK interests. Indeed, with the publication in March 2021 of its integrated review of defence and foreign policy, which barely even name-checked the Commonwealth, the British government finally seemed to have given up trying to solve that perennial riddle.

How and why, then, does the Commonwealth survive? One answer is that the prestige of hosting the organisation’s biennial Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), and hence inheriting the title of Chair-in-Office, ensures there is at least one Commonwealth leader who has a keen interest in dragging out its existence for another couple of years. It is a particular prize for regimes who want to use it for what one might call ‘reputation laundering’. This was certainly the case in 2013 when the Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was heavily implicated in serious human rights abuses, was able to wrap itself in the high ideals of the Commonwealth Charter and welcome Prince Charles and other Commonwealth dignitaries to that year’s summit in Colombo. To many Commonwealth-watchers, the prospect of the 2022 CHOGM being hosted by the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, with its own highly controversial record in the areas of human rights and press freedom, seemed like a wilful failure by the Commonwealth Secretariat to learn from recent history. Still, it was difficult to see what the UK gained from this process of whitewashing.

It probably took the ingrained cynicism of the Johnson administration to answer this question. But answer it they did last week when they unveiled a memorandum of agreement under which asylum seekers would be ‘relocated’ to Rwanda for processing and settlement. In return the UK would pay Rwanda around £120 million. Not only was Britain proposing to use a Commonwealth partner as a place to ‘dump’ unwanted people, but there were real concerns about the welfare of those forcibly removed there. Announcing the scheme, Boris Johnson partly sought to justify the choice of Rwanda on the basis that, later this year, it would ‘welcome leaders from across the Commonwealth’. The clear implication was that it would not have been granted the honour of doing so if its human rights record had been in doubt. The prime minister was, in effect, neatly inverting the approach of successive governments, including his own, which has been to urge countries like Rwanda to improve their performance in order to adhere to the values of the Charter. As recently as January 2021, the Foreign Office very publicly urged Rwanda to conduct ‘transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice’, reminding it that as ‘a member of the Commonwealth, and future Chair-in-Office’ it had a duty ‘to model Commonwealth values of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights’.

Despite damning accounts of his regime such as Michala Wrong’s 2021 book Do Not Disturb, Kagame has retained friends in high places in the UK and strong links to the Conservative Party. Last month, the British government meekly accepted the appointment of Johnston Busingye as Rwanda’s high commissioner in London despite his alleged role as Minister of Justice in the abduction of Paul Rusesabagina, a leading critic of Kagame. And in September last year, the UK appointed as its ‘Commonwealth Envoy’ Jo Lomas who had recently stepped down as Britain’s high commissioner in Rwanda. A Commonwealth-based ‘special relationship’ was taking shape, the outcome of which was always likely to be unsavoury. But even Johnson’s critics will have been taken aback by the sheer crass inhumanity of the current scheme. It is the wrong answer to the decades-old question of how to make use of the Commonwealth and, like almost everything else the prime minister touches, it is likely to reflect badly on everyone involved.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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