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Commonwealth leaders gather in Rwanda as UK refugee plan focuses attention on human rights

For decades, Whitehall has pondered how to make use of the Commonwealth, without tangible results. There was an expectation in some quarters that Brexit would increase its significance to the UK. But it was never clear why this would, in itself, suddenly transform an under-resourced and notoriously unfocused organisation into an effective vehicle for British 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. And the UK is not alone in wondering whether there shouldn’t be a clearer instruction manual for this enigmatic survival from the imperial past.

How and why, then, does the Commonwealth survive? Perhaps the best answer is that the benefits of belonging to the organisation are now about identity rather than utility. Since the 1990s, it has attempted to reinvent itself as a body united by shared values rather than a shared history. These are values like respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law enshrined in the 2013 Commonwealth Charter. So being a member is a sort of Kitemark of international respectability.

More specifically, the prestige of hosting the organisation’s biennial Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – and hence becoming the organisation’s 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 human rights abuses, was able to wrap itself in the high ideals of the 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 controversial record in the areas of human rights and press freedom, seemed like a willful 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.

‘Dumping’ refugees

It probably took the ingrained cynicism of the Johnson administration to answer this question. But answer it they did in April when they unveiled a memorandum of understanding 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, Johnson partly sought to justify the choice of Rwanda on the basis that, later in the 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.

Rwanda’s record

In January 2021, the Foreign Office reminded Rwanda 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”. Yet as recently as last month, the Home Office’s own report on human rights in Rwanda placed it 45th out of 49 African nations in terms of the ability of opposition parties to participate in the political process, 44th in terms of freedom of expression and 47th in terms of freedom from “political killings and torture by the government”.

Despite damaging assessments such as these, Kagame has retained friends in high places in the UK and strong links to the Conservative Party. In March, the British government meekly accepted the appointment of Johnston Busingye as Rwanda’s high commissioner in London despite his alleged role while minister of justice in the abduction of Paul Rusesabagina, a leading critic of Kagame and the man world-famous for having sheltered refugees from the 1990s genocide, as depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda.

Neither the current Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, nor Jamaica’s foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, who will be challenging her for the role when heads of government meet in Rwanda later this week, have openly criticised the UK’s asylum plan, perhaps for fear of alienating Kagame who will be presiding over the vote. Indeed, in an extraordinarily vitriolic article in which Scotland’s supporters accused the British government of promoting a “colonial agenda” and having systematically undermined her, no mention was made of the Rwandan deal despite its distinctly colonial overtones.

But not everyone has been so relaxed about this burgeoning Commonwealth “special relationship”. Apparently fearing that deportations to Rwanda would overshadow this month’s CHOGM, Prince Charles reportedly described the scheme as “appalling”. A letter to The Times from Anglican bishops called it “shameful” and one of Johnson’s own backbenchers labelled it “ugly”.

The legal challenges which forced the UK to halt the first flight to Rwanda at the last minute may have reduced the prospect of embarrassment when Commonwealth heads meet, but the UK government remains committed to the policy. It is the wrong answer to the decades-old question of how to make use of the Commonwealth and, like almost everything else the British prime minister touches, it is likely to reflect badly on everyone involved.

The Conversation

Philip Murphy has received funding from the AHRC. He is a member of the European Movement UK. An earlier version of this article was published by History & Policy on 20 April.

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