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Why Commonwealth summit in Kigali won’t be the relaunch some were hoping for

Photo of CHOGM leaders at a past meeting in London
A past CHOGM meeting. The summit struggles to balance the diverse national interests of member states. Jack Taylor/ Getty Images

Most of the leaders of some 54 countries – from Africa, Europe, Asia and Southern America – have converged on Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Philip Murphy, a professor of Commonwealth history examines the expectations and limitations of the conference.

What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth consists of 54 independent member states. Most of them were formerly ruled by the British, although Mozambique, which joined in 1995, and Rwanda, which joined in 2009, do not share that historical link to the UK. There are 19 Commonwealth states in Africa, eight in Asia, three in Europe (including Cyprus and Malta, which are both also members of the European Union), 13 in the Caribbean and the Americas and 11 in the Pacific.

They vary widely in size and population. The majority of Commonwealth members (32) are classified as small states with populations of under 1.5 million. By contrast, India – the most populous Commonwealth state – has 1.4 billion citizens. Of the 2.5 billion people who live in the Commonwealth, over half are based in India.

In 2021 the combined GDP of all Commonwealth countries was estimated to be US$13.1 trillion.

The Commonwealth is sometimes described as a “family of nations” and as a mark of their special relationship members call their diplomatic missions in other Commonwealth states “high commissions” rather than embassies.

What are areas of focus for the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth takes an interest in a wide variety of issues. These range from climate change and deforestation to gender equality, international development, good governance, human rights and the rule of law.

This represents both a strength and a weakness. It means that it speaks to the diverse national interests of its member states. Yet it finds it almost impossible to focus its activities on one or two major issues where it could make a genuine difference. Whereas the more affluent countries of the Commonwealth have tended to favour a focus on trade and good governance, the less affluent have stressed the need to address global inequality and promote development.

The result has generally been warm words on all these issues but a conspicuous lack of concerted action. This is reflected by the absence of a clear and deliverable agenda for heads of governments meetings. Instead, they have ‘themes’, which are intentionally all-encompasing. The theme of the 2022 Summit is ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’.

It has been four momentous years since heads last met. The world has faced extraordinary challenges and the Commonwealth has done little of note to offer solutions. So its supporters hope the meeting in Kigali will give a much needed boost to the organisation’s public profile, leadership and sense of purpose.

What are some of the organisation’s genuine success stories?

The issue which kept the Commonwealth focused, energised and newsworthy from the 1960s to the 1990s was the struggle to dismantle white minority rule in southern Africa. This tended to place British governments in an uncomfortable position, as they were often accused of obstructing attempts by the rest of the Commonwealth to put pressure on the governments of Rhodesia and South Africa. But while the organisation was rarely united in its approach, it can certainly claim a prominent role in the international fight against apartheid.

More recently, the Commonwealth has pointed to its success in promoting democracy among its member states. Yet while the organisation is no longer prepared to tolerate military dictatorships or one-party states, a number of members, including the host of the 2022 Summit, have poor records in terms of allowing opposition movements to operate freely.

How does it enforce its decisions?

This is another area where the Commonwealth struggles. It is not a treaty-based organisation and members are not legally bound by its decisions. Because it emerged from the dissolution of the British Empire, there has never been any willingness on the part of members to transfer powers back to its coordinating body, the Commonwealth Secretariat.

From the 1990s, the Commonwealth has increasingly portrayed itself as a body united by shared values rather than a shared history, and in 1995 it created the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to monitor adherence to those values. The group’s powers include the ability to recommend the suspension or even the expulsion of member states. But because it is so easy for members simply to withdraw from the Commonwealth without immediate negative consequences, the group has proved reluctant to hold them to account except in the case of the most flagrant violations of the organisation’s norms.

How will the success of the Kigali meeting be judged?

A perennial problem for the organisation is that although it issues statements about a wide range of international issues, Commonwealth heads of government meetings tend in practice to be dominated by purely internal affairs. The 2022 meeting will be no different.

The media are likely to focus on the future of the Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, who is seeking a second term in office. Normally, secretaries-general serve two four-year terms, and it is unusual for the incumbent to be challenged at the end of their first term. Scotland’s first term was due to come to an end in 2020, but because of COVID, the heads of government meeting due that year has twice been postponed. Hence, she has already served for six years. She is being challenged by a Jamaican nominee, Kamina Johnson Smith, who has the backing of some major member states including the UK and India. Indeed, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has made no secret of his desire to deny Scotland a second term in office. This has led to a very public row in the run up to the summit, with accusations from Scotland’s supporters that the Johnson administration’s “colonial agenda” risks wrecking the Commonwealth.

Press attention is also likely to focus on the human rights record of Rwanda, where the meeting is taking place. Since 1999, the leader of the host country becomes the Commonwealth’s chair-in-office until the next heads of state meeting, which usually follows in two years’ time. In 2013 the decision to allow Sri Lanka to host proved extremely contentious due to the human rights record of its government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In 2022 attention is likely to focus on the regime of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, which is accused of suppressing opposition and freedom of speech and destabilising the country’s neighbours. The British government’s highly controversial scheme to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda has put the country’s domestic and foreign policy under even greater scrutiny.

Neither this, nor the increasingly bitter campaign for the post of secretary general, is likely to give the Commonwealth the sort of positive “re-launch” some of its supporters were hoping for.

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