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Commonwealth Should Reconsider Rwanda Membership

Commonwealth Should Reconsider Rwanda’s Application for Membership

by Heather Collister
Consultant, Human Rights Advocacy Programme, CHRI

At the 2009 CHOGM Heads of Government will make a decision on whether to admit Rwanda to the Commonwealth. The criteria for membership of the Commonwealth derive from the establishment at the 2005 CHOGM in Malta of a Committee on Commonwealth membership. The Committee’s recommendations were adopted by the 2007 CHOGM in Kampala and they clearly state that to be admitted as a member of the Commonwealth the applicant country should comply with the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth including human rights.

Although the Commonwealth Secretariat has prepared a report on Rwanda’s application, presumably including an assessment of Rwanda’s compliance with the Commonwealth’s human rights standards, that report has never been made public. Concerned to ensure that information about Rwanda’s human rights record is available in the public domain, in order to assist Member States in reaching a decision on whether to admit Rwanda, CHRI sent a mission to Rwanda in May 2009.

An interim report containing its findings was released at a press conference held in London towards the end of July 2009. The reaction to the interim report suggested that there was considerable misunderstanding, or at least confusion, about Rwanda’s history, the politics of the genocide of 1994, and the record of the government led by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) since the end of the genocide. This prompted the preparation of a fuller report that examines the evolutionary factors which have shaped Rwanda’s present politics— particularly because the RPF evokes strong emotions of both approval and dislike. CHRI trusts that this detailed report will enable both the governments and the peoples of the Commonwealth to assess the merits of Rwanda’s application. Extracts from this report follow below. The full report can be accessed from CHRI’s website at the following link:

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Since the release of this report the Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has written to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth strongly urging him to bring CHRI’s report to the notice of the incoming Chairperson in Office, which will be the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, along with the recommendation that the application of Rwanda be kept pending until its full compliance with the criteria for Commonwealth membership is verified against an agreed set of benchmarks, a process that should take place at the next CHOGM in 2011.

Extract of CHRI’s Report “Rwanda’s Application for Membership of the Commonwealth –Report and Recommendations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

The situation with regard to human rights within Rwanda has been an ongoing concern for many international agencies and human rights organisations. The provisions of the 2003 Constitution against “genocide ideology”, and consequent laws, prohibiting the raising of any doubts about the extent of the killing of Tutsis in 1994, and any discussion of retaliatory killings of Hutus, have been used to suppress freedom of speech and have created a climate of fear in civil society. Censorship is prevalent and the government has a record of shutting down independent media outlets and newspapers, and harassing journalists. General civil society is also severely hampered by restrictive laws governing independent associations. There remain serious concerns about the level of political freedom and the fact that the independent body in charge of registering political parties is still controlled by the ruling Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). Rwanda’s judiciary has systemic weaknesses and there are troubling questions about the failure of the judiciary to investigate and prosecute members of the Rwandese Patriotic Army for their involvement in human rights abuses and proven involvement in war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

There are some serious human rights concerns about the operation of the Gacaca courts, set up to deal with the majority of those accused of involvement in the genocide. They do not adhere to basic presumptions of innocence or fair trial procedures. President Kagame has used his power to give immunity from prosecution to some of those suspected of being the most serious perpetrators of human rights abuses. The Rwandan government’s ongoing activities in the DRC and its support of Tutsi militias in Kivu have raised grave concerns, and indeed recommendations that senior figures in the RPF ought to be brought before international and foreign tribunals.

CHRI acknowledges that Rwanda has what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for governmental efficiency and for being less corrupt than a number of other countries—but its claims about the lack of corruption appear hollow when considering its complicity in the illicit economy of the region, and its plunder of the DRC’s natural resources. Furthermore, such attributes are not sufficient for membership of the Commonwealth.

The RPF has used an extraordinary amount of violence, domestically and internationally, in the pursuit of its illegitimate aims. It is responsible for killing almost 500,000 persons, whether citizens or not, and is responsible for the deaths of many times more through displacement, malnutrition and hunger. It has denied hundreds of thousands of children of the opportunity to go to school, and deprived millions of prospects of family and community life.

While CHRI takes into account the extreme violence and suffering that Rwanda’s people have been through, it acknowledges the economic and administrative progress that has been made under the present regime, recognises the potential within its constitution to nurture a democratic polity and accepts that Rwanda has traditional and growing ties with some Commonwealth members in its region. CHRI therefore proposes that CHOGM should not reject Rwanda’s application outright, but deal with it in the fashion of the European Union, when considering applications for membership. The Commonwealth should reiterate its values, identify areas where Rwanda falls short, and ask it to remedy deficiencies while offering assistance to resolve these. Once it is satisfied that appropriate laws and, most importantly, practices have been instituted, Rwanda should be welcomed to the Commonwealth.

CHRI’s recommendations to CHOGM on Rwanda

CHRI puts forward two recommendations—one is general relating to the process for admission of new members, and the other specific to Rwanda.

I. We propose that an independent commission of eminent Commonwealth statespersons, representatives of leading pan-Commonwealth NGOs, and experts on the applicant country should be set up to review the application and report to the Heads of Government. The commission would subject the applicant to rigorous scrutiny of its record on human rights and democracy, and engage with its civil society, trade unions, political parties, universities and so on, to obtain a sense of public opinion. Unless this is done, there is the danger that the Commonwealth could slide into debased standards, and lose both its attraction to the people of the Commonwealth and its own the reputation.

II. The upcoming CHOGM should make no decision on the applicant other than to set up a procedure to examine Rwanda’s eligibility for membership and the consequences for the Commonwealth of expansion in its members.


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