Rwanda, Rusesabagina & The Commonwealth

By Paul Blezard

The ongoing case of Paul Rusesabagina raises some very worrying questions about the role, the administration and the effectiveness of The Commonwealth of Nations, especially when it concerns standing up to member states that contravene its core principles.

Commonwealth of Nations Flag

The globally recognised humanitarian, Rusesabagina was flown to Rwanda against his will (see earlier Medium piece, A Tale of Two Flights) then incarcerated, tortured, abused and paraded before the media prior to a sham trial in which he faces blatantly false charges of terrorist activity. It is uniformly acknowledged that this is all the result of, and retribution for, merely being a credible and vocal critic of Paul Kagame.

Kagame and his government are coming under increased international scrutiny. Many serious questions are being asked about his long-term abuses of democratic practice — he has held on to power for over two decades. The lack of independence of the Rwandan judiciary, freedoms of press and speech issues are all increasing causes of deep concern. And then there are the long simmering allegations of Kagame’s direct involvement in the funding/incitement/support of insurrections and atrocities in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and other areas in the Great Lakes region, all part of Rwanda’s role as a conduit for channelling DRC’s valuable mineral resources onto the world market (see earlier Medium piece Don’t Look Here.)

The trial of Paul Rusesabagina specifically highlights a number of serious issues that should give the Commonwealth members states, and its administrative bodies, cause for grave concerns, especially given the shared goals and principles that each of the 54 member states, representing 2.4 billion people globally, sign up to through the Commonwealth Charter.

Commonwealth Charter

This document outlines highly laudable values and aspirations regarding democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law and more. It encapsulates the aims of the Commonwealth to seek consensus through cooperation, mutual support and understanding to provide a model for best practice in the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations.

What it does not do is clearly state the penalties and sanctions that may be deployed against those members who, having signed up to the charter, ignore it.

Rwanda is a case study in the abrogation of Commonwealth membership responsibilities. It is a nation that has suppressed freedoms of speech and freedoms of the press and which has quietly acted in a way that puts China’s suppression of the same in Hong Kong to shame.

Kagame’s manipulation of any free democratic principles has ensured that he now sits alongside such leaders as Putin, Erdogan and Al-Assad for the length of his term in power.

With regard to human rights, the story is yet more concerning and, with the ever-increasingly catalogue of evidence that is being accumulated, more damning.

One has to look no further than Michela Wrong’s excellent book, Do Not Disturb, for a forensic analysis of just some of Kagame’s retributive intra and extra national killings, his chosen method of quieting the dissenting voices he feels threatened by.

Add to this the rising levels of hunger and poverty that he is presiding over — this despite a tidal wave of international aid money that he has received — and it becomes clear that human rights are not high, or even evident, on the Rwandan agenda.

And yet, despite all this, the Commonwealth sees fit to reward Rwanda, and Kagame personally, with hosting the twice-postponed Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

From Kagame’s own Twitter feed it is clear that he sets great store by his engagement with the Commonwealth and is keen to use photographs of himself shaking hands with its current Secretary-General Baroness Scotland and other Commonwealth luminaries at every opportunity. Many see this as blatant window-dressing; Kagame egotistically propping up his failing presidency with statesmanlike imagery.

But he is not the only head of state to use a Commonwealth profile for base political purposes and it is not the key point here.

What is critical is what the Commonwealth’s continued relationship with Rwanda says about the Commonwealth and about the complicity of silence about Rwanda’s appalling record that it drags other member states into.

When a chain has a failing link, it is removed and replaced to maintain the integrity of the chain. When a sports team has a player that transgresses the rules of the sport or is underperforming, that player is removed from the field of play and replaced to ensure the effectiveness of the team.

There is now little doubt that Rwanda is transgressing so many — too many — of the requirements of Commonwealth membership. It is putting the integrity and reputation of the Commonwealth in danger through its actions and seems to have forgotten that privileges, such as membership and all the benefits it brings, are earned through adherence to the rules.

By not reprimanding Rwanda, by not enforcing its own rules of membership, the Commonwealth devalues its own reputation and undermines its own principles. In so doing it sends the message “We’d like you to play by our rules but hey, if you don’t feel like, nothing… will… happen.” For those member states that do make the effort, who do abide by the charter they signed up to, this is appallingly unfair and insulting.

Since early this year representatives of the Paul Rusesabagina support team have, on numerous occasions, written to Baroness Scotland, to Lord Ahmad and to the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab — all of whom have responsibilities for the administration of the Commonwealth — and have so far received no response, a disappointing but not entirely unexpected lack of accountability from the organisation’s key figures.

Happily, a letter to H.M. The Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth, received a gracious reply that may yet have some effect.

Once an organisation loses its reputation for integrity it can rarely be regained. If Rwanda does indeed host CHOGM you will know that the Commonwealth is rewarding the same behaviour it claims to combat through its very existence and which informs every article of its charter.

In so doing it will have lost so much of what the charter declares, the need for the Commonwealth as “…a compelling force for good.”

We wait, we watch, we hope.

1031 words © Paul Blezard 2021

#FreeRusesabagina is fighting for the freedom of the international humanitarian activist Paul Rusesabagina.