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Welcome Rwanda

By Andre Bagoo Monday, November 30 2009

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AMIDST lingering concerns over its human rights record, Rwanda was yesterday announced as the 54th member of the Commonwealth after leaders at this weekend’s Heads of Government Meeting in Port-of-Spain decided unanimously to admit the African state into their fold.

Rwanda’s admission came at the end of a summit which saw potentially divisive human rights issues, involving other key African states, placed on the back burner as heads of governments instead focussed on etching out an agreement on environmental issues leading up to next month’s Copenhagen summit in Denmark.

Rwanda’s entry, which was deliberated upon on Saturday, was announced by the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma at the close of the CHOGM yesterday afternoon. The Commonwealth Secretariat also issued a press release revealing that Sharma telephoned Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame late on Saturday evening to inform him of the decision.

At a closed-door closing session held at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Port-of-Spain yesterday, Sharma revealed details of his conversation with Kagame.

“Last night I telephoned the head of our newest member, Rwanda,” Sharma told the leaders and representatives of 53 Commonwealth states gathered. “He assured that its government and people aspire to our values and goals and I conveyed a warm welcome to Rwanda on behalf of us all.”

Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, now becomes the second member to be admitted into the Commonwealth without any direct British colonial link. The other is Mozambique, which joined in 1995. In August, Sharma wrote to heads of government on the issue of Rwanda’s application which had been formally transmitted to heads of state last month.

While the decision to accept Rwanda was unanimous, it is understood that Rwanda’s bid was initially strongly supported by several influential Commonwealth nations, most notably Britain, Australia, India, Canada and Uganda.

Rwanda’s Information Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, said her government was pleased with the decision.

“My government sees this accession as recognition of the tremendous progress this country has made in the last 15 years,” she yesterday told Rwanda’s online Sunday Times. “Rwandans are ready to seize economic, political, cultural and other opportunities offered by the Commonwealth.”

Rwanda’s ambition to join the Commonwealth, which is a cluster of nations with approximately US$2.8 trillion in annual trade among them, dates back to 1996, only two years after an infamous genocide which saw over almost a million people killed in the course of a civil conflict.

The admittance of the troubled African state comes notwithstanding objections raised by Commonwealth human rights groups who have warned that the country has illegally invaded neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, has courts which do not conform to international standards and use laws criminalising “genocide ideology” to suppress freedom of speech.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s executive director Maja Daruwala yesterday warned that the decision to admit Rwanda was premature.

“It would have been just as easy to wait until after next year’s elections in Rwanda and see how its record unfolds in terms of governance and human rights,” Daruwala told Newsday.

Not only did Rwanda’s admittance appear to come in the face of objections from human rights lobby groups, but it also came after a series of unsuccessful calls made on the Commonwealth to act on reports of human rights violations in other African states namely Gambia and Uganda and will thus raise concerns over the role of human rights in the Commonwealth.

Leading up to last weekend’s CHOGM, human rights groups had called on Commonwealth leaders to take action against the government of Uganda over a bill which proposes the execution of gays and lesbians. The groups also called on Commonwealth leaders to press for an explanation from Gambian president Yahja Jammeh over a threat he made to kill persons aligned with human rights in his country.

At yesterday’s closing session both Sharma and current Commonwealth chairman Prime Minister Patrick Manning did not break with the tradition of complimenting the outgoing chairman, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, under whose administration the gay execution legislation is making its way through the Uganda Parliament.

However while Manning had, last week, warned that rights issues need not “detain” the leaders gathered at the summit, Sharma was yesterday at pains to emphasise that these issues had not been ignored by Commonwealth leaders.

“We are an organisation of engagement,” the Secretary General said at a press conference in the afternoon. “In order to make progress we do it below the radar. This must not be interpreted as indifference.” He revealed that he yesterday morning mandated the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to look into how the human rights principles of the Commonwealth could be better enforced.

While the Commonwealth leaders this weekend resolved to admit Rwanda, they were more sceptical of the prospect of the re-entry of another African state, Zimbabwe, which was reported to have been one proposal of Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

According to a CHOGM communique issued yesterday, “Heads of Government welcomed the Global Political Agreement on power sharing in Zimbabwe, and expressed the hope that this would be implemented faithfully and effectively.” However, “they looked forward to the conditions being created for the return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth.” Another communique reaffirmed the Commonwealth’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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