Rwanda is preparing to welcome the leaders of 54 countries to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on Friday in the capital, Kigali.
The Commonwealth was formed in 1931 as the British Empire began to disintegrate and nations declared their independence. Its stated goal is to work towards the common goals of prosperity, democracy and peace. Rwanda and four other countries are not former British colonies.
This week’s summit, which has been postponed twice since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, is overshadowed by concerns about human rights violations in Rwanda and UK plans to send asylum seekers to an African state for processing there.
“The Rwandan government was very keen to hold (the meeting) in person to showcase the country and showcase the capital,” says Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame “wants to be included in an organization that claims to be based on values, claims to support human rights, democracy and the rule of law… And obviously he is a very controversial figure. The human rights situation in Rwanda is questionable and controversial.”
Rwanda denies that the government commits human rights violations. Supporters of Kagame say holding the Commonwealth meeting is another milestone in the country’s rapid development since the 1994 genocide, which killed some 800,000 people.
Civil society groups in Rwanda complain about the lack of media and political freedom.
Rwandan journalist Eleneus Akanga fled the country in 2007 after the government shut down his newspaper. “My crime was that I told the truth. I wrote a story or wanted to write a story about journalists who were beaten by unknown people. And it turned out that these journalists thought that the authorities were beating them with the help of state agents. Later I learned that they were going to accuse me of espionage.”
Akanga then fled to the UK and was granted political asylum in 2007.
Earlier this year, the UK signed an agreement with the Rwandan government to send asylum seekers arriving on its shores to be processed in Rwanda. The first flight was supposed to take off last week, but was blocked minutes before departure by the European Court of Human Rights.
Critics say the policy violates refugee law. The British government says the policy is legal and will deter migrants.
“When people come here illegally, when they break the law, it’s important that we make that distinction. This is what we are doing with our Rwanda policy,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on June 18.
The UK has developed close ties with Rwanda since the latter joined the Commonwealth in 2009, Murphy said.
“Kagame has strong ties to the British Conservative Party. He has many supporters there. So I think this asylum agreement was probably designed against the backdrop of these special relationships in the Commonwealth,” Murphy said.
Exiled journalist Eleneus Akanga says the policy is controversial.
“It’s amazing when you see that the British government that gave asylum to people like me is now the same government that tells us that somehow Rwanda has changed so much that this is the country they are willing to send the most vulnerable asylum seekers who might be because they believe the situation has changed. And we know it’s not,” Akanga told VOA.
According to Commonwealth analyst Murphy, the Commonwealth meeting will be overshadowed by a dispute over Britain’s asylum policy.
“In a way, it brought international attention to the human rights situation in Rwanda,” he told VOA. “Since the 1990s, the Commonwealth has tried to reinvent itself as an organization united more by common values than by a common history. The problem is that he doesn’t control those values very well.”