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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rwanda’s Commonwealth application

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative


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With Rwanda's application for membership of the Commonwealth likely to be on the agenda at this year's Commonwealth heads of government meetings, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) expresses serious reservations about the country's credentials. Evidence pointing to the suppression of freedom of speech and a climate of fear represent significant causes for concern, the CHRI argue in this week's Pambazuka News, and ultimately point to the need for an independent body designed to assess applicants' and existing members' records on democracy and human rights.

Rwanda’s application for membership of the Commonwealth is likely to be on the agenda at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Port Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. Traditionally, because of its origins, the membership rules for the Commonwealth were informal. In recent years, interest in membership has been shown by states with no previous constitutional link to the Commonwealth or its members. This led to specific criteria being developed from CHOGM, 1997 onwards, the chief of which is that an aspirant member state must abide by the Principles set out in the 1991 Harare Declaration. Rwanda has no constitutional link to any Commonwealth country. Only one country without a constitutional link has previously been admitted in this way – Mozambique in 1995 – and that was before there were formal criteria. Given this, Rwanda represents an important test case. Among the key Harare Principles are commitments to the protection of human rights and to democracy. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) believes that overwhelming evidence, conveniently ignored by leading Commonwealth states, demonstrates that the government of Rwanda is not sufficiently committed to these values.

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 (RPA) 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 Democratic Republic of the Congo 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 Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) natural resources. Furthermore, such attributes are not sufficient for membership of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the capacity for efficient government ought perhaps to indicate that a country should be able to govern without major human rights abuses, contrary to the situation in Rwanda. The Rwandan government has excellent public relations machinery. Its leaders are astute, and effectively play upon the conscience of the world, particularly Western states, by invoking victimhood of genocide (while cleverly hiding the fact that thousands of Hutus were killed by its armed forces, the total political destabilisation it has constantly engineered in the DRC, and the heart-rending suffering it has brought to the Congolese and other communities). It has succeeded in persuading the key members of the international community that it has an exemplary constitution emphasising democracy, power-sharing, and human rights which it fully respects.

The truth is, however, the opposite: It uses the constitution opportunistically as a façade, which hides the exclusionary and repressive nature of the regime; relies on power structures that sometimes run parallel to, and sometimes cross-cuts, the formal government; and in which the army plays a central role. (Sometimes Rwanda is described as ‘an army with a state’, and at other times the army is described as ‘soldats sans frontières’, or ‘soldiers without borders’). Rwanda has relied heavily for its revenue (to fund its institutions and elites) on the plunder of the mineral resources of the DRC – and extraordinarily generous development assistance from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and some other Western governments. It bears the primary responsibility for the political and economic instability in the Great Lakes Region (including the overthrow of the Congolese government), which is functional to its mode of extraction of wealth and its dominance of the region. It practises, and has contributed to, a complex, regional regime of illegal economic transactions, evasion of United Nations sanctions, arming of militias and criminal business organisations, and disregard of neighbours’ borders and fiscal systems, which has greatly impoverished the people of the region.

The RPF has used an extraordinary amount of violence, domestically and internationally, in the pursuit of its illegitimate aims. It is responsibile 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. The UN has voluminously documented these practices and repeatedly chastised Rwanda (as the extracts from UN reports in the appendices demonstrate).

CHRI also observes that the membership criteria, including adherence to the Harare Principles, are not a basis for entitlement to membership; they are just a minimum threshold. Again, CHRI has no wish to underplay the fact that the Rwandan people have suffered gross human rights abuses and endured the most horrific mass atrocities since the end of the Second World War, but this cannot provide a justification for their membership of the Commonwealth as long as basic human rights in the country remain in such an unsatisfactory state. It does not make sense to admit a state that already does not satisfy Commonwealth standards. This would tarnish the reputation of the Commonwealth and confirm the opinion of many people and civic organisations that the leaders of its governments do not really care for democracy and human rights, and that its periodic, solemn declarations are merely hot air. The admission of a state below standard will lower the ‘average’ , as it were, of the Commonwealth commitment to democracy and human rights. And, it would weaken the Commonwealth when it comes to making decisions on sanctions against defaulting existing members, increasing the number of states who have shown little regard for human rights. Such admissions of new members with poor records would drive a wedge between the governments and peoples of the Commonwealth, reducing the organisation to a mere trade union of governments. The fact that there are a number of members of the Commonwealth which gained their membership by virtue of their post-colonial heritage are themselves human rights abusers, should not be a factor in Rwanda’s application for membership. If anything, this provides the grounds for making the criteria for continued membership of the Commonwealth on human rights observance more stringent.

CHRI believes that the procedure for admission to the Commonwealth must include a full and comprehensive review of the state of human rights in the applicant country. CHRI recommends that, at the 2009 CHOGM, an independent commission be set up to examine the entire question of membership, and that the nature and future of Commonwealth membership should be considered afresh, independently of political concerns and current membership applications. In addition, it recommends that an independent commission of eminent Commonwealth persons, and experts on the applicant country should be set up to review each application, beginning with Rwanda, and report to the Heads of Government. This would subject the applicant country 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. The latter commission should have resources to prepare background materials to inform the people of the applicant state about the history and significance of the Commonwealth and the rights and obligations of membership. And a process must be set up whereby a state wanting entry to the Commonwealth can indicate that the government has consulted with the people, and it must be able to objectively demonstrate their support.

Supporters of Rwanda’s admission claim that Commonwealth membership will provide it with the incentive and the opportunity to improve its human rights record. It would learn about the importance and practice of human rights from other members, and at the same time, it would come under pressure to improve its own standards. With all due respect, this is extremely unconvincing. Several member countries in the rest of the Commonwealth violate human rights with near total impunity as far as the Commonwealth is concerned. Rwanda would feel very comfortable going to CHOGM retreats, secure in the knowledge that no one will raise questions about its gross violations of democratic principles, the rule of law, and human rights. Cameroon, which was admitted in 1995, has yet to meet the basic Commonwealth requirements in spite of endless Commonwealth Secretariat efforts and expense. The Commonwealth machinery for enforcing human rights and disciplining errant states is rudimentary, ineffective and marked by a lack of political will. In general, Commonwealth states have come under greater pressure from non-Commonwealth countries. The major brokers of peace, restoration of democracy and human rights are the United States of America and the European Union: in Kenya’s worst political crisis since independence, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousand displaced, the silence and inactivity of the Commonwealth was astounding.

Our conclusion is that the state of governance and human rights in Rwanda does not satisfy Commonwealth standards. Rwanda does not therefore qualify for admission. It has been argued that neither do several existing members. Unfortunately, that is certainly true. But there is an important difference between these states and Rwanda. They became members by virtue of their past history of British colonialism and the convention of more or less automatic membership. Until the Harare Declaration, there were no formalised standards of Commonwealth values. Governments of member states which deviate seriously from these standards are now subject to disciplinary measures, including suspension or even exclusion (although the last option has not been exercised so far, on the assumption that exclusion would be unfair to the people of the state, who may themselves be victims of violations). Suspension is lifted only when the deviant practices have been abandoned. If the Commonwealth admits a state below its standards, it would have to welcome the new member, if it is to stand firm on its self-proclaimed values, by criticising its democratic and human rights record and considering sanctions.

It is important that the Commonwealth, several of whose members are associated with the non-aligned movement, should not be swayed by the interests of some of its members, who have for long supported the present Rwandan regime, despite its gross and well-known violations of human rights. Nor must it, as a predominantly anglophone association, rejoice in the present regime’s rejection of francophonie (which in large part may be opportunistic), just as the French assistance to the Habyarimana regime in 1990, when the RPF invaded Rwanda, was inspired by the devout wish to retain Rwanda within the francophone community – and to worst the ‘ Anglo-Saxons’, successors to ‘les Anglais’. That would be puerile and beneath the dignity of the Commonwealth.

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. The admission of Cameroon was made subject to its satisfying Commonwealth values and standards as was the re-admission of Fiji after the first coup of 1987.


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

I(a). This report comments on the lack of a mechanism to establish that the people of an applicant state in reality seek or support the bid for membership, and that the state in fact satisfies the test of Commonwealth values. CHRI considers that now is the time to deal with this lacuna, before further applications are received. We therefore urge the next CHOGM to address these two issues before it proceeds to the consideration of Rwanda’s application. 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. It 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. The commission should have resources to prepare background materials to inform the people of the applicant state about the history and significance of the Commonwealth and the rights and obligations of membership. If necessary, it should commission studies on the country’s legal, economic and social systems (to educate the Commonwealth about the potential new member and enable its communities to assess the eligibility of the applicant) – in a rudimentary form. 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.

I(b). With the prospect of new applications this is the right time for renewed debate on the nature and future of the Commonwealth. The world has changed very significantly in recent decades. There has been a large growth of new regional and international organisations. What is the relevance of these developments for the Commonwealth? What will the Commonwealth gain from aspirations to become a universal organisation? What will be the effect of the admission of states without a history or understanding of the Commonwealth? These and other questions should be addressed in the first instance by a commission established jointly by Commonwealth governments and civil society. Its report should be disseminated widely and debated by the public.

II. This report makes it clear that Rwanda does not satisfy the test of Commonwealth values. There are considerable doubts about the commitment of the current regime to human rights and democracy. It has not hesitated to use violence at home or abroad when it has suited it. Consequently, its admission would send the signal, loud and clear, that the commitment of the governments of the Commonwealth countries to its values is shallow. We therefore suggest that the next CHOGM 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. In consultation with Commonwealth civil society, it should set up the commission as proposed in recommendation I(a), to initiate this discussion. The commission should report within a year of its appointment. The report and recommendation should be the basis of negotiations with Rwanda, and Rwanda should be informed accordingly.


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