Commonwealth Meeting in Rwanda Has a Long Agenda. Human Rights Isn’t on It.


KIGALI, Rwanda — Presidents, princes and prime ministers from across the world gathered on Friday in Kigali, the hilly capital of Rwanda, to examine some of the pressing issues facing their nations and the association that unites them: the Commonwealth.

But as the meeting whose agenda included topics like health care, climate change and the effects of the war in Ukraine got underway, nearly everyone — except, it seemed, the Commonwealth leaders themselves — focused instead on Rwanda’s human rights record.

For years, the country and its government, led by President Paul Kagame, has been accused of cracking down on dissent, muzzling the news media and destabilizing neighboring countries. Those moves, according to many of those who have gathered for the meeting in Kigali, are contrary to the values of democracy, free expression and peace espoused by the Commonwealth, a 54-nation organization that was born out of the dying embers of the British Empire and includes countries as far-flung as Canada, Malaysia and Nigeria.

The silence from Commonwealth leaders about Rwanda’s transgressions, observers and rights groups say, risks diminishing the authority of the organization, which has existed in one form or another for more than 70 years.

“This summit shows that Kagame’s repression is immune to Commonwealth values and criticism,” said Keith Gottschalk, a political scientist at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, another member country. “It shows that diplomatic alliances trump any human rights convention,” he added.

Rwanda, a landlocked country of about 13 million people in central Africa, is the youngest member of the Commonwealth, having joined in 2009, and it is one of only two constituent nations not historically linked to British colonial rule. (The other is Mozambique, which joined in 1995.)

The summit in Kigali, which had been postponed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic, burnishes the leadership of Mr. Kagame, who has been the de facto leader of Rwanda since the end of the 1994 genocide. Despite accusations of appalling human rights violations and the fact that he has won elections with nearly 99 percent of the vote, Mr. Kagame has remained a darling of Western donors and has continued to position Rwanda as a tiny nation punching above its weight.

As well as bringing together leaders from the Commonwealth, Mr. Kagame has also reset his country’s relations with France — a longtime foe because of Paris’s role in the genocide — and has helped propel his former foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, to lead a Paris-based organization for French-speaking nations, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

Mr. Kagame’s government has also taken in hundreds of African refugees evacuated from Libya and has partnered with Britain on a controversial plan to settle asylum seekers in what his spokeswoman, Yolande Makolo, said was “a solution to a sticky problem.”

Militarily, Rwanda is the fourth-highest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping forces, behind Bangladesh, Nepal and India. (The United States is 82nd on that list.) And Rwanda’s troops have been deployed separately to fight insurgents in Mozambique’s gas-rich northern province.

For some Rwandans, the summit this week has been a boon for business. With more than 5,000 participants, hotels in Kigali are packed to the brim. The capital, with its modern malls and coffee shops, is gleaming. There is also heavy security along the manicured roads, along which an array of Commonwealth-related activities including street festivals and a night run have been taking place.

“The event has enabled us to get many clients,” said Theoneste Nduwayezu, 30, who owns a printing business in Kigali.

But for others, the summit has meant the resurfacing of some of the draconian measures that the authorities in Rwanda deploy to keep order.

In the prelude to the event, some residents said that they had been ordered to renovate or paint their homes or buy banners advertising the country’s tourism industry. Others said that the authorities had ramped up efforts to remove homeless children and beggars from the streets — Human Rights Watch accused the government of doing the same ahead of the meeting that was canceled last year.

Charles Sentore, a resident of the capital, said that he did not know much about the Commonwealth summit, but, he added, “what I am certain of is that having this meeting in Kigali caused problems to people living here.”

Before the meeting, 24 civil society and rights organizations called on the Commonwealth to raise concerns about the human rights situation in Rwanda. Several activists from those organizations said that they had not received a response to the letter and underlined their concerns about Mr. Kagame’s actions against government critics, activists and journalists — some of whom are stuck behind bars only miles from the convention center where the event is being held.

Those include Paul Rusesabagina, a hotelier turned dissident whose story was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda.” After the Rwandan government kidnapped him in 2020, Mr. Rusesabagina was subjected to what his legal team called “a sham trial” and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Numerous local journalists and YouTube commentators have also been jailed or have disappeared after reporting on contentious issues, including Rwanda’s stringent Covid lockdowns. And at least two foreign journalists have been denied accreditation to cover the Commonwealth meetings, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“We can’t in good conscience sit together and be talking about governance and democracy and freedom of expression and not acknowledge the huge elephant in the room, which is the problem of the country in which we are gathered and how they treat journalists,” Dionne Jackson Miller, a Jamaican journalist and lawyer participating in the summit, said in an interview.

“If we fail to do that, if we are unwilling to face up to that,” she added, “we have no business being here at all.”

A Rwandan opposition leader, Victoire Ingabire, said that her efforts to sign up for the Commonwealth summit had been ignored. Ms. Ingabire returned from the Netherlands in 2010 to run against Mr. Kagame, but was arrested in the months after and later sentenced to 15 years in prison.

She was released in 2018 as part of a presidential pardon, but she said that she had not been allowed to leave the country to visit her sick husband or to attend her son’s wedding. Some of her party members have also disappeared or been killed in the past few years, she added.

“Rwanda is a beautiful country with kind people,” Ms. Ingabire said, “but it has a long way to go when it comes to establishing the rule of law and respecting human rights.”

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.

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