The Commonwealth meets in the shadow of a migrant, the line of rights

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Kigali (AFP) – A Commonwealth leaders’ summit opens in Rwanda on Friday as the host country comes under scrutiny for its rights record and a migrant deal with Britain threatens to eclipse the meeting.

A bitter contest also looms for the leadership of the 54-nation club made up mostly of former British colonies as it grapples with its changing identity and future relevance.

The Commonwealth represents a third of humanity spanning parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, but some of its most prominent leaders skip the top, sending emissaries in their place.

Prince Charles, representing Queen Elizabeth II as head of the Commonwealth, made the first visit by a member of the British royal family to Rwanda for the gathering, which culminates in two days of leadership meetings.

He will meet on the sidelines Friday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been promoting his much-criticized deal to deport migrants to Rwanda since arriving in Kigali on Thursday.

The scheme involves Britain deporting asylum seekers thousands of miles away to Rwanda and has been fiercely opposed by the church, rights groups and – apparently – Charles himself.

Johnson – who discussed the plan with his fellow architect Paul Kagame during a meeting with the Rwandan president on Thursday – said he would defend the proposal to Charles and other critics.

“What critics of the policy need to understand, and I’ve seen loads and loads of criticism, is that Rwanda has undergone an absolute transformation over the past two decades,” the British leader said.

Fee Review

Johnson pledged to press ahead with the deal, which faced legal challenges in UK and international courts, and was looming large ahead of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

A first flight of asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda was due to take off last week but was halted following an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

Johnson also praised Kagame for the “leaps and bounds” achieved in Rwanda, despite widespread concerns about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in the small African nation.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed Rwanda’s achievements under President Paul Kagame Dan Kitwood Pool/AFP

Rights groups have openly questioned Rwanda’s suitability for hosting the Commonwealth, which has a charter that enshrines respect for democracy and human rights as core shared values.

More than 20 rights groups and civil society organizations have warned the Commonwealth is risking its credibility by hosting the summit in Rwanda, where they say a “climate of fear” exists under Kagame’s rule.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has also called on Britain to condemn Rwanda for its alleged “aggression” in mineral-rich eastern Congo, where Kigali has been accused of stoking a rebellion.

Rumblings of leadership

At least publicly, these concerns have not been raised and a “Ministerial Action Group” tasked with examining the behavior of Commonwealth members has issued no statement after their meeting.

Forums before the summit touched on everything from trade and investment to malaria, climate change and mental health.

Britain's Prince Charles, pictured with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, is said to have criticized the migrant deal
Britain’s Prince Charles, pictured with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, is said to have criticized the migrant deal Simon MAINAAFP

The leaders’ meetings for the next two days behind closed doors will miss some heavyweights, including India’s Narendra Modi, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Australia’s Anthony Albanese.

Republican movements are taking root in some Commonwealth countries and there have been new discussions about the royal family’s future role in the club and its wider purpose in a post-colonial world.

Meanwhile, the West African states of Togo and Gabon are set to become the Commonwealth’s newest members despite having no historical ties to Britain – like host country Rwanda, who joined in 2009.

Friday will also bring to a climax a struggle for the leadership of the Commonwealth that has at times turned sour.

Kamina Johnson Smith challenges Patricia Scotland for the post of General Secretary, despite Commonwealth convention dictating that the incumbent should run unopposed for a second term.

Smith, who is Jamaica’s foreign secretary, has the backing of the UK, which has publicly expressed its dissatisfaction with Scotland’s handling of the organisation.

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