KIGALI, Rwanda — As the leaders of the Commonwealth wrapped up a week of closed-door meetings, panel discussions and formal dinners on Saturday in Rwanda, this “family of nations” still stood at a crossroads, with questions remaining about its usefulness and whether it can reinvent itself for the 21st century.
The Commonwealth, which comprises 56 nations across five continents and represents about 2.5 billion people, was born out of the dissolution of the British Empire, with the hope of advancing shared values of democracy and peace. But the Commonwealth is struggling to confront a legacy of colonialism, at a time when the people of some member nations, catalyzed by Black Lives Matter protests, are pushing to either sever relations with the monarchy or insist on apology or reparations.
The summit in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, took place as many nations forged deeper connections not among themselves, or with Britain, but with other far-flung powers like China, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
“The Commonwealth meetings have either been letdowns or disasters,” Philip Murphy, the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said.
Delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic, the summit came as many member states are suffering from the dire effects of climate change and the war in Ukraine. In an era of shifting economic circumstances and rising threats to peace, observers this week were doubtful that leaders here had been able to pave a new path for the Commonwealth.
“There’s no shortage of hope and aspiration invested in the Commonwealth,” Mr. Murphy said, adding, “the trick is to get it to achieve anything, and I don’t see any aspect of that really happening even this year.”
Many of the delegates who gathered at the convention this week agreed that the Commonwealth, on paper at least, had clear principles. But putting them into practice has been elusive, particularly as many of its member states experienced democratic backsliding and some outright cracked down on press freedom.
This was especially true of the host nation, Rwanda, where rights groups say journalists and government critics have faced imprisonment, disappearances or mysterious deaths. In 2009, when Rwanda applied to join the association, the independent Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative argued in a detailed report that the country did not meet the standards to join. But it was admitted anyway — one of two nations, along with Mozambique, that did not have direct links to Britain.
Sneh Aurora, the director of the London office for the human rights group, who was at the summit this week, said that if the Commonwealth wants to become a better and forward-looking institution, “it is time the Commonwealth walks the talk.”
Experts said that some former British colonies sought to belong to the Commonwealth, despite its allegiance to the Crown, because it offers them a measure of global legitimacy and forbearance for human rights violations except when their actions are in extremis.
Even so, Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Pretoria, said it was confounding that Britain was championing cooperation among the Commonwealth as it slashed aid to Africa and planned to deport asylum seekers to the continent.
“The Commonwealth is about maintaining the ultimate colonial institution as a purportedly democratic coalition of equals when clearly it’s not that in practice,” she said. After parting ways with the European Union — its biggest trading partner — Britain is looking to expand its clout, she said. “The Commonwealth is not an association of equals but a terrain or stage where Britain can have greater influence,” she said.
That influence has waned in recent years, as many countries in the Global South have pursued new economic and political partnerships elsewhere.
This is particularly true in Africa, where China has risen as a financier and builder of infrastructure and a major source of imports and exports. Over the past decade, the decrease in Africa’s share of British imports and its significant increase in trade with China “has led to the U.K. being less influential on the continent,” said Cobus van Staden, the co-host of the “China in Africa” podcast.
In a move aimed at countering that, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain this week appointed a special envoy to the Horn of Africa, just days after China’s own envoy to the region convened a seven-nation meeting to help tackle wider instability in the region.
In the Caribbean, former British colonies have either cut ties with the monarchy, such as Barbados, or have expressed a desire to become republics, such as Jamaica. But missing at the Commonwealth summit was any examination of Britain’s colonial past and how that would impact the future of the association.
Given that the imperial legacy is the thread uniting Commonwealth nations, it would make sense to address it, Mr. Murphy said. Yet the Commonwealth is “never particularly keen” to do so, he said, partly because the British government has always been “very reluctant” to see those issues raised.
“The last thing it wants to talk about is reparations, providing apologies or restitution,” he said. So “that particular potential of the Commonwealth goes untapped.”
The only exception came during Prince Charles’s speech at the opening ceremony, when he acknowledged what he called the “painful” roots of the Commonwealth.
“If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past,” he said. “Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
The Prince of Wales, who also spoke about his recent trip to Canada, where he met with Indigenous communities in several reconciliation events, said that keeping the queen as head of state was “purely a matter for each member country to decide.”
Yet despite its shortcomings, the Commonwealth is attracting new members. The applications of Togo and Gabon, two former French colonies, were approved, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, announced on Saturday.
On Friday, countries also voted to reappoint Patricia Scotland, a Dominica-born British lawyer and diplomat, as secretary-general. Mr. Kagame is set to take over from Mr. Johnson as chair for the next two years. The next heads of government meeting will be held in Samoa in 2024.
Some of the younger delegates at the summit said that despite everything, African countries could find a way to leverage the association to their advantage.
“Unlike the past, we are now at the table,” said Babala Hassan Atiku, a Ugandan who took part in the Commonwealth Youth Forum. “We just need to know what we want and go after it.”
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