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Rwanda hosts Commonwealth summit

June 20, 2022

Rwanda is hosting the CHOGM summit. It brings together leaders from Commonwealth countries, including 19 African states.

Flags of Commonwealth countries taking part in the CHOGM summit
The Commonwealth has 54 member states, encompassing 2.4 billion peopleImage: Luke Dray/Getty Images

Rwanda is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which brings together leaders and representatives from the group's 54 members, most of which are former British colonies.

It's the first time the biennial meeting has been held in four years, after the 2020 CHOGM was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enhancing women's role in leadership, boosting business among Commonwealth countries and supporting the youth in leadership roles are among the key issues at the six-day summit, which starts on Monday June 20 and runs until Saturday. 

The summit will be an opportunity for Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, often referred to as the "West's favorite dictator" to boost his status and promote his country to the outside world.

Rwanda often comes under fire from rights groups for its repressive treatment of critics and dissenting voices — a reason, some say, that the East African nation shouldn't be staging the Commonwealth summit.

Portrait of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame
The regime of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has been accused of serious human rights abusesImage: Presse- und Kommunikationsdienst der Präsidentschaft der DR Kongo

Rwanda's capital, Kigali, "should never have been chosen as the [CHOGM] venue," said Michela Wrong, a British author and former journalist with years of experience covering Africa. "This endorsement of Kagame's rule sends out a really worrying signal for the future of the Commonwealth."

Rwanda was accused in 2021 of targeting the phones ofmore than 3,500 activists, journalists, diplomats and foreign politicians with spyware called Pegasus. The surveillance software can reveal intimate details of what the phone's owners are doing. 

Michela Wrong warns that Rwanda's failure to abide by rights conventions opens up the more than 5,000 CHOGM delegates to privacy abuses. 

They'll be "advised not to stage heart-to-heart conversations on their mobiles while in the country because Rwanda is an enthusiastic consumer of Pegasus spyware, which it uses to bug visiting ministers and heads of state," she said at a virtual event about Rwanda hosting CHOGM organised by the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

She also pointed to Rwanda's habit of clearing Kigali of beggars, street children and the homeless ahead of big conferences like CHOGM, as documented by organization such as Human Rights Watch. 

These people are detained in transit centers where they are "re-educated", she said, adding that this is a "polite euphemism for some pretty harsh treatment."

Ahead of CHOGM, 21 rights groups in an open letter called on the heads of state attending the meeting to pressure Rwanda's government to respect human rights. 

Free speech concerns in Rwanda

History of hosts with questionable human rights

Africa conflict expert Phil Clark believes, however, that the criticism of Rwanda, whether justified or not, shows a "hypocrisy" in relation to other nations within the Commonwealth. 

"There's a perception amongst many Commonwealth members that close human rights and democratic scrutiny is only for the non-white colonized member states of the Commonwealth like Sri Lanka and Rwanda," said Clark, a politics professor at SOAS University of London. 

"It's certainly not for the UK itself and it's not for the white settler colonial states of the Commonwealth such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand," he said.

Australia hosted the 2011 Commonwealth summit at the height of the country's use of offshore detention centers to process those seeking asylum in Australia, Clark said, yet "Australia wasn't subjected to nearly as much scrutiny as Rwanda."

Australia's offshore processing model, which has parallels with the attempts by the UK to process asylum seekers in Rwanda, has been heavily criticized for being cruel and degrading, and violating international law. 

Clases between Rwanda-DR Congo
Several thousand people demonstrated in DRC on the border with Rwanda to denounce 'Rwandan aggression'Image: Michel Lunanga/AFP/Getty Images

Security concerns

CHOGM has been partly overshadowed by Rwanda's alleged support of M23 rebels, who are active in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the border to Rwanda. 

Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing the armed group, which launched their biggest offensive in a decade in May 2022. 

The tension between DR Congo and Rwanda escalated late last week after clashes on the border between the security forces of both countries. 

Rwanda government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said delegates will be safe during their stay in Kigali, which is some 100 km from the border to DR Congo. 

"What happened at the border is being investigated. However, our visitors are assured of their security in Kigali or elsewhere in the country," Makolo said at a media briefing.

Youth speak out

The violence in nearby Congo and the questions around Rwanda's suitability to host the summit failed to dampen the enthusiasm of participants of the Commonwealth Youth Forum, which took place in the days before CHOGM officially opened. 

Cameroon National Youth Council chairperson Fadimatou Iyawa Ousmanou called the forum an "opportunity" for young people while Caribbean delegate Kendell Vincent praised how participants could learn from each and connect. 

The 2022 youth forum focuses on the adverse impacts of climate change, conflict and COVID-19, all of which which disproportionately hit young people by cutting employment, training and education opportunities.

Approximately 60% of unemployed people in Commonwealth countries are young, according to the forum organizers. 

Speaking at the CHOGM youth forum, Rwanda's Youth Minister Rosemary Mbabazi challenged Africa's youth to play active roles in running state affairs in their respective countries.

"Are you present to take charge of your future, or are you only procrastinating?," she asked. "Are you doing what is necessary to create your future, or do you leave it to chance?"

Edited by: Kate Hairsine