Commonwealth summit opens in Rwanda amid feuds over leadership and refugees

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Tuesday, 21 June 2022 18:03, updated on Tuesday, 12 July 2022 10:47

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Gian Ehrenzeller/Keystone via AP)

Political leaders from across the English-speaking world gather in Kigali this week for the first time since the pandemic to try to forge a common path forward. Instead of a show of unity, however, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is marked by a power struggle over who should lead the 54-member group and a global outcry over the British government's policy of deporting refugees to Rwanda.

The summit runs from 20 June to 25 June under the theme ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’. However, that future got a lot more cloudy when Jamaica announced in April that its minister of foreign affairs, Kamina Johnson Smith, was challenging the incumbent, Baroness Patricia Scotland, for the post of Secretary-General.

A former Attorney General for England and Wales, the Baroness was born in Dominica and is eligible for another four-year term. She was the first woman to assume the role, taking up her post in 2016.

Scotland faced controversy early on in her role, branded by the British media as “Baroness Brazen” after refurbishments to the Secretary-General’s flat totalled £338,000. Other scandals include hiring an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper and whispers of corruption as she gave a consultancy contract to an old friend.

Jamaica’s decision infuriated some in the region who fear that a leadership fight will only divide the Caribbean region. To help make Smith’s case, the government of Jamaica signed a $99,000 contract with New York public relations firm Finn Partners back in April for help with strategic counsel around the election.

To date, only seven Commonwealth leaders have thrown their support behind Smith. These include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, prompting allegations – denied by Smith – that she is a proxy candidate for the UK, which is keen to retain its privileged relationship with a Commonwealth of more than 2.5 billion people in order to help ensure its economic success post-Brexit.

As the world works to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and in this Jubilee year, it is more important than ever that the countries of the Commonwealth come together

“We are of course grateful to Baroness Scotland for her service to the Commonwealth, but after consideration, I have decided that the UK will support Jamaican candidate Kamina Johnson Smith to be the next Secretary-General,” Johnson told The Africa Report in an exclusive interview last week. “She has the vast experience and support across the Commonwealth to unite our unique family of nations. As we come out of the pandemic and deal with the global fallout from Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, a new secretary-general can address challenges head-on and seize the many opportunities the Commonwealth offers.”

Philip Murphy, Director of History and Policy at the University of London’s Institute of Historical research says he struggles to understand “the full vitriol of the British government’s attack on Patricia Scotland”.

“She went into the job with a clear goal to shake things up”, says Murphy, “she’s been clumsy in the way she went about this. But I think her main failing in the eyes of Johnson’s government is that she remained neutral during the Brexit referendum and never suggested the Commonwealth could be an alternative to the EU for Britain. It was only when the referendum was over that the Daily Mail started to run pieces against her.”

Further raising the stakes, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall will be attending this year’s summit.

“As the world works to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and in this Jubilee year, it is more important than ever that the countries of the Commonwealth come together,” the duo says. “As a family of some 2.6 billion people from 54 nations across six continents, the Commonwealth represents a rich diversity of traditions, experience and talents which can help to build a more equal, sustainable and prosperous future.”

Rwanda policy pushback

This is not the first time that the Summit’s host country has faced backlash – in 2013, Sri Lanka was criticised for its human rights record and alleged war crimes against ethnic Tamils. The UK has also recieved criticism for the Windrush scandal in 2018 when they hosted the summit, despite a public apology from Theresa May.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has attracted global condemnation for her immigration policy of sending illegal immigrants and refugees seeking aid in the UK for “processing” in Rwanda.

The Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP) was announced on 14 April 2022, in an attempt by the Conservative party to respond to the overwhelming claims for asylum in the UK after countless wars have triggered a global refugee crisis.

Murphy believes this year’s summit could also open the doors to criticism. He said, “Human rights activists will take the opportunity of the press attention in Kigali to highlight the human rights abuses and give a platform to some of the activists who are still brave enough to remain in Rwanda.”

“The commonwealth will be used to exonerate the government. The argument will be that if Rwanda is supposed to be so bad why has it been allowed to host this summit?”

The government’s actions have sparked outrage from many refugee aid NGOs and members of the public, including a letter signed by more than 80 public figures, such as football pundit Gary Lineker OBE and musician Akala, who is also an author and academic.

The letter states that the UK-Rwanda deportation deal is “re-traumatising” and “racist” and should be cancelled immediately. It calls on airlines, including Titan Airways, Privilege Style and Iberojet, to refuse to cooperate with the policy, while demanding that the UK government abandon the deal and “ensure that people who need sanctuary can safely rebuild their lives” in the UK.

The first flight was to cater for more than a hundred people targeted by the Home Office but was cancelled minutes before take-off last week after a late intervention from the European Court of Human Rights led to fresh challenges in UK courts.

Airlines that have previously worked with the Home Office in its deportation scheme, such as Titan Airways, received extensive backlash online. This prompted Titan to issue a public statement denying involvement in the scheduled flights.


“Make no mistake, any airline that collaborates with removing refugees to Rwanda will be forever tarred by their association with this cruel and dangerous policy – and likely in violation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” says Kolbassia Haoussou MBE, director of Survivor Empowerment at Freedom from Torture. “We urge these airlines to stand on the right side of history and rule themselves out of removal flights.”

Zoe Gardner, the policy and advocacy manager for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, criticised the government for their scheme. “Priti Patel seems determined to treat certain refugees sadistically,” Gardner said, “brandishing her cruelty towards them as a way of scoring headlines and diverting attention away from her crumbling party.”

Meanwhile, Rwandan President Paul Kagame is pushing for the UK government to extradite suspects in the 1994 genocide who have lived in the UK for more than a decade. British judges have blocked extradition, arguing that the suspects may not receive a fair trial in Rwanda.

Asked by a member of parliament if he will raise the issue at the Commonwealth summit, Johnson said: “No country is more committed than we are to bringing war criminals to justice.” He promised to study the case but added that it would not be appropriate for him to comment.

Future partnerships

The agreement with Rwanda reflects the Johnson government’s post-Brexit vision, marked by the renewal of several trade deals with African countries.

In conversation with The Africa Report last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new partnership signposted a new attitude to migration to the UK.

“There is no single solution to tackle dangerous traffickers who are fuelling unsafe and unchecked migration,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of our partnership with the Government of Rwanda, which is helping to counter the work of criminal smuggling gangs.”

If this government were serious about ending exploitation, and providing sanctuary to people who need it, it would establish safe routes to asylum in the UK now

“But it’s only one part of our wider strategy to overhaul the broken asylum system and ensure people can access safe and legal routes of migration. It’s been clear for a long time that the current way of doing things, with desperate people paying their life savings to smugglers and crossing the ocean in flimsy dinghies, isn’t working”.

In response to his comments, Gardner said the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants had informed the prime minister “time and again” that the best way to prevent perilous crossings and save lives would be to create safe routes for people seeking sanctuary in the UK.

“We know this is possible,” she said. “Though our government’s response has been slow and imperfect, Ukrainian refugees are able to apply for visas to the UK online, and travel here via plane, ferry or train.”

“Sadly, they seem entirely unwilling to open safe routes for black and brown refugees fleeing danger and trying to reach family members here. They have closed the Syrian resettlement scheme, the Afghan resettlement scheme has completely stalled, and they have refused to introduce humanitarian visas, which would grant people in need of protection safe passage here,” Gardner said. “If this government were serious about ending exploitation, and providing sanctuary to people who need it, it would establish safe routes to asylum in the UK now.”

In March 2021, Viscount Waverley criticised the government in parliament for striking one-sided agreements with African countries, including Kenya.

“The UK’s recent push to sign continuity agreements with African states has drawn criticism for being overly focused on the UK’s needs and not those of the continent,” he said. “This would tie in well with Commonwealth objectives to boost intra-Commonwealth trade, a significant proportion of which should be in Africa.”

Murphy believes that these Commonwealth ambitions are misplaced at best. He says, ““The idea that the Commonwealth was going to be this alternative trading block is complete moonshine. The UK has been trying to roll over the preexisting arrangement with African nations that they used to have via the EU. It’s difficult to improve on those agreements from a British perspective without being exploitative and taking away aid.”

This comes as recent cuts to foreign aid may disproportionately impact women and young girls, says Scottish National Party parliamentarian Steven Bonnar.

“According to an equalities assessment undertaken by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office,” he said, “the UK Government [was] aware that women and girls were more likely to be harmed by cuts to the UK foreign aid budget.”

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