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


KIGALI, Rwanda — Presidents, princes and prime ministers from internationally gathered on Friday in Kigali, the hilly capital of Rwanda, to look at a few of the urgent points dealing with their nations and the affiliation that unites them: the Commonwealth.

But because the assembly whose agenda included subjects like well being care, local weather change and the consequences of the warfare in Ukraine bought underway, almost everybody — besides, it appeared, the Commonwealth leaders themselves — centered as an alternative on Rwanda’s human rights file.

For years, the nation and its authorities, led by President Paul Kagame, has been accused of cracking down on dissent, muzzling the information media and destabilizing neighboring international locations — strikes that many gathered for the assembly say are opposite to the values of democracy, free expression and peace espoused by the Commonwealth, a 54-nation group that was born out of the dying embers of the British Empire and consists of international locations as far-flung as Canada, Malaysia and Nigeria.

The silence from Commonwealth leaders about Rwanda’s transgressions, observers and rights teams say, dangers diminishing the authority of the group, which has existed in a single type or one other for greater than 70 years.

“This summit reveals that Kagame’s repression is proof against Commonwealth values and criticism,” mentioned Keith Gottschalk, a political scientist on the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, one other member nation. “It reveals that diplomatic alliances trump any human rights conference,” he added.

Rwanda, a landlocked nation of about 13 million individuals in central Africa, is the youngest member of the Commonwealth, having joined in 2009, and it’s one among solely two constituent nations not traditionally linked to British colonial rule. (The different is Mozambique, which joined in 1995.)

The summit in Kigali, which had been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, burnishes the management of Mr. Kagame, who has been the de facto chief of Rwanda because the finish of the 1994 genocide. Despite accusations of appalling human rights violations and the truth that he has received elections with nearly 99 percent of the vote, Mr. Kagame has remained a darling of Western donors and has continued to place Rwanda as a tiny nation punching above its weight.

As effectively as bringing collectively leaders from the Commonwealth, Mr. Kagame has additionally reset his country’s relations with France — a longtime foe due to Paris’s role in the genocide — and has helped propel his former international minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, to guide a Paris-based group for French-speaking nations, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

Mr. Kagame’s authorities has additionally taken in a whole bunch 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, mentioned was “an answer to a sticky downside.”

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

For some Rwandans, the summit this week has been a boon for enterprise. With greater than 5,000 members, motels in Kigali are packed to the brim. The capital, with its trendy malls and occasional retailers, is gleaming. There can also be heavy safety alongside the manicured roads, alongside which an array of Commonwealth-related actions together with avenue festivals and an evening run have been happening.

“The occasion has enabled us to get many purchasers,” mentioned Theoneste Nduwayezu, 30, who owns a printing enterprise in Kigali.

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

In the prelude to the occasion, some residents mentioned that they’d been ordered to renovate or paint their houses or purchase banners promoting the nation’s tourism trade. Others mentioned that the authorities had ramped up efforts to take away homeless youngsters and beggars from the streets — Human Rights Watch accused the federal government of doing the identical forward of the assembly that was canceled final yr.

Charles Sentore, a resident of the capital, mentioned that he didn’t know a lot concerning the Commonwealth summit, however, he added, “what I’m sure of is that having this assembly in Kigali precipitated issues to individuals residing right here.”

Before the assembly, 24 civil society and rights organizations called on the Commonwealth to lift issues concerning the human rights state of affairs in Rwanda. Several activists from these organizations mentioned that they’d not obtained a response to the letter and underlined their issues about Mr. Kagame’s actions in opposition to authorities critics, activists and journalists — a few of whom are caught behind bars solely miles from the conference middle the place the occasion is being held.

Those embrace Paul Rusesabagina, a hotelier turned dissident whose story was portrayed within the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda.” After the Rwandan government kidnapped him in 2020, Mr. Rusesabagina was subjected to what his authorized crew known as “a sham trial” and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Numerous native journalists and YouTube commentators have additionally been jailed or have disappeared after reporting on contentious points, together with Rwanda’s stringent Covid lockdowns. And at the very least two international journalists have been denied accreditation to cowl the Commonwealth conferences, in keeping with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“We can’t in good conscience sit collectively and be speaking about governance and democracy and freedom of expression and never acknowledge the large elephant within the room, which is the issue of the nation through which we’re gathered and the way they deal with journalists,” Dionne Jackson Miller, a Jamaican journalist and lawyer collaborating within the summit, mentioned in an interview.

“If we fail to try this, if we’re unwilling to resist that,” she added, “now we have no enterprise being right here in any respect.”

A Rwandan opposition chief, Victoire Ingabire, mentioned that her efforts to join the Commonwealth summit had been ignored. Ms. Ingabire returned from the Netherlands in 2010 to run in opposition to Mr. Kagame, however was arrested in the months after and later sentenced to fifteen years in jail.

She was launched in 2018 as a part of a presidential pardon, however she mentioned that she had not been allowed to depart the nation to go to her sick husband or to attend her son’s wedding ceremony. Some of her party members have additionally disappeared or been killed previously few years, she added.

“Rwanda is a wonderful nation with type individuals,” Ms. Ingabire mentioned, “nevertheless it has an extended method to go in relation to establishing the rule of regulation and respecting human rights.”

An worker of The New York Times contributed reporting.

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