Mourning the Death of an Ideal: Rwanda, CHOGM 2020 and Commonwealth’s Crisis of Moral Conscience

Didas Gasana

By Didas Gasana

Another biennial cocktail of cash, power and politics in the name of Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting just ended few hours ago in London, UK. Kleptocrats and Democrats, Kings and dictators, rulers and leaders, crony capitalists and outright murderers met for what has now become political ritual of doubtful value rather than a wonderful experiment of peace, human rights and sustainable prosperity.

The official purpose of this ritual is to enable leaders of Commonwealth countries to come together to discuss global and commonwealth issues, and to decide on collective policies and initiatives. Up to now, the impact of these gatherings to its 53 member states’ 2.4 billion people, whose combined GDP is 9 Trillion USD; is largely unconvincing.

One thing is certain though: These gatherings have mastered the art of issuing lots of declarations, time after time, such as the Singapore Declaration of Principles (1971), the Harare Declaration (1991), the Trinidad and Tobago Affirmation of Values and Principles (2009), and the Commonwealth Charter (2012.); whose practical implementation is everything but real.

The Charter, launched in 2012, for example, obliges members states to uphold 16 fundamental principles, including respect and promotion of human rights, the rule of law and good governance, international peace and security, freedom of expression and separation of powers. The Charter has repeated references to democracy and the “rule of law,” and promises that the Commonwealth will address “promptly and effectively all instances of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values without any fear or favor.”

It is true that the Commonwealth has suspended some members from the Councils of the Commonwealth for serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration, particularly in abrogating their responsibility to have democratic government. Nigeria was suspended between 11 November 1995 and 29 May 1999, following its execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the eve of the 1995 CHOGM. Pakistan was the second country to be suspended, on 18 October 1999, following the military coup by Pervez Musharraf, and for a second time, far more briefly, for six months from 22 November 2007, when Musharraf issued a state of emergency. Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002 over concerns regarding the electoral and land reform policies of before it withdrew from the organisation in 2003. The declaration of a Republic in Fiji in 1987, after a military coup designed to deny Indo-Fijians political power, was not accompanied by an application to remain. Commonwealth membership was held to have lapsed until 1997, after discriminatory provisions in the republican constitution were repealed and reapplication for membership made. Fiji has since been suspended twice. And then; Apartheid South Africa. In 2013 and 2014, international pressure mounted to suspend Srilanka from the Commonwealth, citing grave human rights violations by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaska.

Yet these dictatorships were not the worst offenders among the long list of coconut regimes that have held their citizens hostage. Violating the rule of law principles and human rights does not generally cost a regime the opportunity to enjoy the adoration of the other members of the club, including being host to the biennial bash.

As said earlier, Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka destroyed the last vestiges of democratic rule when he blocked efforts to carry out an investigation into the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, in which at least 40,000 people died. The Commonwealth Secretary General issued the usual statement expressing “concern” about the judicial situation in Sri Lanka and then resumed the business of planning the 2013 Chogm in Colombo, Srilanka. Only prime ministers of Canada, India and Mauritius decided to boycott the Colombo cocktail.

Dictators’ paradise

Like tax havens, Commonwealth has become a haven for serial human rights abusers. While it has punished some errant members, However, in recent years the collective political will of Commonwealth members to promote human rights has all but evaporated. And beyond the CHOGM, the Commonwealth as a family has become even more spineless.
Its secretariat fails to push or fund its human rights unit as a viable mechanism to encourage its members to comply with international standards; neither the secretary-general nor the diplomats of leading member states make a serious effort to get the Commonwealth to act collectively at the UN and elsewhere to champion human rights.

Member states, with a nod from London and Washington, use the real threat of terrorism to justify abuses such as torture and illegal detention, stifle political opposition and endanger regional security at the watch of Commonwealth. “As a global, multifaith, multiracial network of states committed to respecting human rights, the Commonwealth could be a powerful symbol of the universality of human rights and a champion of their protection. But that means first engaging constructively with its own members on their shortcomings, taking strong action against serial abusers, and refusing to accept new members unless they are genuinely committed to human rights and democracy.”

Rwanda 2020: The Vigil

In my culture, when we lose a dear one, we hold a vigil. For Commonwealth, the vigil shall be held in Rwanda in 2020; after CHOGM 2018 voted Rwanda to host the next biennial cocktail.

When Rwanda was about to join Commonwealth, I was interviewed by two or three media outlets on whether Rwanda qualifies, given the fact that the criteria is, interalia, strict adherence to the principles of rule of law, human rights, and good governance. My opinion then was; “well, Rwanda has a not so bad company there.”

Beyond failing to deal with the rights abusers, Commonwealth actively encouraged applications by repressive governments such as Rwanda which do not meet the Commonwealth’s own criteria for membership as set out in the 1991 Harare declaration. By accepting dictatorships like Rwanda, despite strong opposition from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and both local and international civil society organisations, Commonwealth literally turned its back on human rights and political freedoms.

From Human Rights Watch to US Department of State; From Amnesty International to European Parliament; From the African Court of Human Rights to Media Freedom watchdogs; the lowest common multiple is that Rwanda’s human rights record and treatment of political dissent is as good as North Korea’s.

Furthermore, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009, following an official review of the organisation’s membership criteria, which had been formalised in 1997 after the accession of Mozambique. While Mozambique’s application had been unanimously endorsed as a ‘unique and special case,’ given the country’s role in supporting anti-apartheid efforts and its unofficial status as a ‘cousin’ of the Commonwealth; Rwanda’s application was potentially a more divisive matter. As a state with no constitutional connection to Britain and no connection of historical or familial worth, Rwanda’s application presented the Commonwealth with something of a dilemma: change the rules and allow a more open and inclusive Commonwealth, thus risking the dilution of one of the Commonwealth’s essential features – its unique family atmosphere; or, turn Rwanda away and relinquish the chance to grow its ailing cosmopolitanism by becoming a more universal organization that could, for the first time, claim to put shared values above the uniqueness of shared history.
But UK viewed Rwanda’s application through the lens of ancient francophobe prejudice; and second, the loss of Zimbabwe six years before had left the Commonwealth with an open wound that had damaged its attempts to rebrand itself as an international organisation with a cosmopolitan outlook. What was needed was a new moral project around which the Commonwealth could repair itself and, for this reason, Rwanda was an attractive prospect.

If the criteria for cosmopolitan exemplar were simply expansion and inclusivity, then Rwanda was an answer. But isn’t it an insult to human intelligence to suggest that inclusivity and acceptance of the rest were the only cosmopolitan criteria under consideration by the commonwealth? What about human rights, democracy, and the rule of law?

At the end of 2018 CHOGM, on April 20th 2018, the Commonwealth Secretariat announced the next round of the CHOGM cocktail shall take place in Rwanda in 2020. This is political speak. Given Rwanda’s human rights record and absence of rule of law; it is apt to say that the vigil for commonwealth ideals of political freedoms, good governance and human rights, shall take place in Rwanda. And I concur. There is no better place than Rwanda to hold this vigil.