For most Britons, the Commonwealth is little more than an historical curiosity. We forget that many countries in the developing world take their membership seriously, and that the number of would-be members continues to grow. The annual summit of heads of government that opens this week in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, is expected to judge the application from Rwanda. In one sense, it is a compliment to the Commonwealth that this ex-Belgian colony, historically very much part of francophone Africa, is seeking to join.
At the same time, it will be one of the most controversial decisions that the Commonwealth has had to take since the days of the rows over sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. The memory of the genocide perpetrated in Rwanda by extremist Hutus against Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994 lingers in the Great Lakes region – and is a factor behind Rwanda's application. The Tutsi-led regime of President Paul Kagame still bitterly resents France, and not without some reason. It maintains that France had close ties to those behind the genocide and that it has never satisfactorily explained its murky role in Rwanda at that time.
Britain is the largest donor of aid to Rwanda, and politicians from both leading parties have good relations with its rulers. When the Commonwealth judges Rwanda's application, however, it must decide whether Rwanda wants to join the association for positive reasons, or whether its prime motive is to spite the French by joining Africa's anglophone camp.
The Commonwealth also needs to look hard at whether Rwanda meets the membership criteria. The terrible suffering of the Tutsis in the mid-1990s has allowed the Kagame government to get off lightly whenever its poor democratic record, questionable human rights record or its role in fomenting armed conflict in neighbouring Congo, is held up to examination.
Unlike France, Britain has no dark secrets to divulge over its role in the slaughter in Rwanda. Therefore, we should be clear-eyed and unencumbered by feelings of guilt when, in company with the Commonwealth members, we judge this significant and unusual application.