As Prince Charles anchors the Commonwealth, we face challenges

Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited a monument to the 1994 Rwandan genocide on Tuesday, their first appearance in Kigali, the capital, where they are meeting this week at a meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM).

Royal historian Ed Owens said the 73-year-old heir to the British throne could reveal that when he succeeds his mother as leader of the Commonwealth, “he will be in charge of a rapidly disintegrating organization”.

British Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are exhibiting a family photo exhibition of some of those killed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
Prince Charles became the first British royal member to visit Rwanda, presenting Queen Elizabeth II as the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth at a summit where both the 54-nation bloc and the monarchy face uncertainty. (AP)

But Charles’ decade of commitment to environmental issues could prove to be an asset for a bloc that includes low-lying island states on the forefront of climate change, he said.

“His concern for the climate, his concern for the environment is very real,” Owens said.

This week’s summit in Rwanda will address challenges such as climate change and the way millions are lifting themselves out of poverty.

Charles was officially appointed to be the Queen’s successor as the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth in 2018, although some have suggested that a non-royal leader would give the Commonwealth a modern profile. He replaces the 96-year-old queen for the second time at the bloc’s summit, the first time in Sri Lanka in 2013, which is considered preparation for his future role as monarch.

The Commonwealth itself is struggling to create a strong identity. It faces criticism for not doing enough to take care of the economic interests of poorer members, including Rwanda itself. The weakness of the group of mostly former British colonies is that it is not a trading bloc at a time when trade is what most nations want.

Prince Charles is visiting an exhibition of the personal belongings of some of those killed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
Prince Charles is visiting an exhibition of the personal belongings of some of those killed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (AP)

With China as Africa’s largest trading partner, some critics say, the Commonwealth risks being largely a ceremonial group.

“The challenge for the Commonwealth has always been how developed nations can help poor countries to transform economically,” said James Mugume, a retired diplomat in Uganda who helped organize the 2007 Commonwealth summit.

The rich members of the bloc are using it for soft power, but when it comes to real issues, such as increasing trade and market access, there is a challenge, “Mugume said.

While the Queen is widely esteemed at home and abroad, Charles ’public relations is more complex. A few days before he flew to Rwanda, Times of London the newspaper reported that he called the British government’s plan to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda “terrible”.

The report from an anonymous source was widely seen as an attempt to distance itself from the controversial – and, critics say, illegal – policy, which threatens to overshadow his visit. Legal challenges halted a flight that would bring in the first group of asylum seekers just days before the summit.

Prince Charles, in the middle, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, top left, come to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
Prince Charles, in the middle, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, top left, come to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (AP)

Charles welcomed the Commonwealth’s potential to make a difference in issues such as climate change and opportunities for young people, “and, in doing so, to be an incomparable force for good”.

The need to benefit every member of the Commonwealth emerged as a strong topic this week, with people demanding a more dynamic bloc.

“We need to make sure no one is left behind, such as small and developing countries,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, adding that he wanted to see a bloc in which “when we talk about the Commonwealth, we actually mean the Commonwealth, not just common to several of the many 54 countries. “

The bloc, with member states ranging from huge India to small Tuvalu, is facing a new challenge as some discuss removing the queen from the post of head of state. She is head of state in 14 Commonwealth kingdoms, but Barbados severed ties with the monarchy in November, and several other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, say they plan to follow their example.

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, observe a wreath next to mass graves at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, observe a wreath next to mass graves at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, Rwanda, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (AP)

While countries may remain in the Commonwealth if they become republics, this increases uncertainty over the organization to which the Queen’s strong personal commitment has helped unite.

Questions remain about the value of the bloc among poorer member states, and some critics scoff at Africa’s ties to an organization it sees as tainted by memories of slavery and colonialism.

“Look at the case of this year’s host (the Commonwealth Summit). Rwanda was not colonized by the British but by the Belgians … It’s like a rural beauty who leaves one bully and falls into the arms of another to make the former jealous powerful, “analyst Nicholas Sengoba said in a column in the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor.

Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 after ties to a former philanthropist in France broke down over its alleged responsibility for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In Rwanda, Charles will meet the survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, visiting the church where the remains of tens of thousands of victims are buried.

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