Today, the African nation of Rwanda was finally admitted to the British Commonwealth, following a six-year bid to join. While most countries in the Commonwealth represent vestiges of Britain’s imperial past, Rwanda was not. Though it is not the first non-British colony to join the Commonwealth (Mozambique did so in 1995), the announcement begs the obvious question: why join?
An editorial in the UK’s own Guardian describes the Commonwealth as a largely ineffectual, informal group of nations that carries very few substantial benefits for its members.
“The Commonwealth does not exist to encourage its members to speak the old mother tongue. Global capitalism and US power mean that English does not need the help. Nor does Commonwealth membership bring any special assistance from the former colonial master: Britain has rather neglected the Commonwealth, closing high commissions in small states and generally treating the body as a slightly awkward part of its past.”
What, then, does Rwanda stand to gain from admission? Many commentators point to the Rwandan government’s deep mistrust of France, citing accusations that the former colonial power was implicit in the nation’s horrific 1994 genocide. In 2006, the two countries broke diplomatic ties when the French government began to investigate the role of current President, Paul Kagame, in the conflict.
President Sarkozy met with Kagame and restored diplomatic ties on the same day that Rwanda was admitted to the Commonwealth.
Thus, there may be some significant truth in the comments of Gideon Kainamura, a member of the Rwandan parliament, that “Rwanda will benefit from the big diplomacy muscle” of the Commonwealth. The $2.8 trillion in annual trade among its members could also be a significant factor.
Rwanda’s bid was not without controversy, and a number of groups had called for an assessment of human rights in the nation before admission. According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI):
“Rwanda does not satisfy the test of Commonwealth values. There are considerable doubts about the commitment of the current regime to human rights and democracy. It has not hesitated to use violence at home or abroad when it has suited it.”
By Mary Tharin