Human rights concerns raised as Rwanda set to join Commonwealth

Kigali wants allowances made for how far it's come since the genocide

Rwanda is set to succeed in its bid to join the Commonwealth this week despite serious concerns over its human rights record, according to a senior source close to the negotiations.

A summit of Commonwealth heads of government in Trinidad and Tobago will add the central African nation to its 53 current members, despite its failure to meet entry requirements. "There is consensus on Rwanda" a senior African negotiator told The Independent.

The decision, expected before the week's end, has been greeted with dismay by NGOs, while the author of a major report on Rwanda's candidacy said it was clear evidence that the Commonwealth "could not care less about human rights".

Professor Yash Pal Ghai, a Kenyan-born expert in constitutional law and author of an independent report for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said: "From the very beginning, the governments of the Commonwealth had decided they wanted Rwanda in. The secretary general, Britain and Uganda have all been pushing for that outcome."

Supporters of the bid have argued that entry into the club would encourage Kigali to raise its standards, but critics counter that it will "lower the group's average" and make it harder to take actions against states – such as Fiji, currently suspended for refusing to call elections – that trangress in future. "The Commonwealth stands for very little if it doesn't stand for human rights and democracy," said Tom Porteous, head of Human Rights Watch in London. "Admitting Rwanda will make it harder for the Commonwealth to project itself as a credible promoter of these values."

Rwanda, a former German colony, which later came under a Belgian mandate from the League of Nations, applied in 2007 to join the voluntary association of mainly English-speaking former British colonies. That move followed the breakdown in relations between Kigali and France as both countries traded accusations over events in the build-up to the 1994 genocide.

Applicant countries are meant to have some historical or constitutional link with the Commonwealth, although the grouping made an exception for the former Portuguese colony Mozambique in 1995.

In its bid, which has been strongly backed by Britain, Australia and Uganda, Rwanda has argued that it should be judged on how far it has come since 1994 rather than against a global standard. "There is room to improve, but no country is 100 per cent perfect," Foreign Minister Rosemary Museminali said. "Rwanda should be looked at in the context of where it's come from."

President Paul Kagame, whose Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front took power in the country after routing the Hutu militias responsible for the massacres, has succeeded in modernising the country's image. The administration has a reputation for efficiency and has attracted strong international support including substantial foreign aid from the UK and US in particular.

However, the CHRI's report paints a portrait of a very different Rwanda. "The Rwandan government has excellent public-relations machinery. Its leaders are astute, and effectively play upon the conscience of the world," it states.

The report details a country in which democracy, freedom of speech, the press and human rights are undermined or violently abused, in which courts fail to meet international standards, and a country which has invaded its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, four times since 1994.

Professor Ghai draws attention to the laws against "genocide ideology", prohibiting the raising of doubts about the extent of the killing of Tutsis in 1994 or any discussion of retaliatory killings of Hutus. Censorship is prevalent, according to the report, and the government has a record of shutting down independent media and harassing journalists.

It concludes that Rwanda's constitution is used as a "façade" to hide "the repressive nature of the regime" and backs claims that Rwanda is essentially an "an army with a state". Kigali reacted furiously to the accusations, saying the claims had "absolutely no basis".

Rwanda has trumpeted its Commonwealth credentials with the switch from French to English instruction in schools last year, and won acclaim for low levels of corruption and high health and education spending. Rwanda's former ambassador to the UN, Gideon Kayinamura, has boasted that other countries could learn from its democracy "where as many as 56 per cent of its MPs are women". Its membership bid is strongly backed by Tony Blair who works as an unpaid advisor on governance.

Suspicions persist that, beyond talk of deepening trade and improving cultural ties, Commonwealth diplomats are tempted by the prospect of cementing such a public defection from the Francophone world. "This British-French rivalry is a batty reason," declared Professor Ghai, who said diplomats responded with "glee and pleasure" at the prospect of Rwandan membership which, they admit, would have no big impact on trade or relations."

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