As Rwanda prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in June, it is walking a tightrope due to the prolonged impact of the pandemic as well as increasing pressure to improve its human rights record.
Despite enforcing strict Covid-19 protocols from the start of the pandemic, the country suffered a major setback with the second wave of infections forcing the government to re-impose restrictions countrywide, including a lockdown in Kigali for three weeks to contain the spread of the virus. As of Thursday, February 4, Rwanda had 4,426 active cases and a positivity rate of 3.7 percent.
While Kigali is sparing no expense in preparation for CHOGM — spending at least Rwf10 billion ($10.5 million) to improve and build infrastructure for the event — risks remain high given continued uncertainty about the future evolution of the pandemic, both locally and globally.
The continued delay in distribution of vaccines in low income countries particularly in Africa — which has 19 members of the Commonwealth, making it numerically the largest in the councils of the Commonwealth — also poses challenges for the meeting. But, Kigali maintains that it is ready and will host the meeting in a safe environment in accordance with World Health Organisation guidelines.
“As we continue to strengthen our capabilities, be reassured that we will host you in a safe environment in respect of all WHO recommendations…” said Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in an opinion published in the latest edition of the Commonwealth Voices magazine, where he detailed the country’s preparedness to host the meeting.
Yet two weeks ago, the government suffered a major blow when the UK added Rwanda to its travel ban red list to prevent the spread of new variants of Covid-19.
The government has contested the ban, arguing that “Considering the list of countries in the region affected and not affected by the ban, the sparse information communicated to Rwanda does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.”
The UK had yet to respond by press time.
The recent travel ban by the UK is among the many hurdles that Rwanda faces ahead of the June 25-26 meeting, which was rescheduled from last year due to the pandemic.
The UK is putting pressure on the country to improve “its human rights record” and to “investigate allegations of forced disappearances, illegal detentions and excessive torture” as the incoming chair of CHOGM.
Specifically, Rwanda came under pressure during the 37th United Nations Periodic Review (UPR), a process under the Human Rights Council, which obliges UN member states to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries.
During the session held virtually on January 25, the UK joined activists and other members mainly from Europe and the US in calling on the country to remove restrictions on civil and political rights as well as media freedom, which undermine human rights.
"As a member of the Commonwealth, and future Chair-in-Office, we urge Rwanda to model Commonwealth values of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights," said Julian Braithwaite, UK’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN-based in Geneva.
He further recommended that, “Rwanda conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice.”
The UK later reinforced its message by publishing a statement on its official website, prompting a response from the government through its embassy in Geneva which termed the recommendations by the UK as “unfounded” and “have no basis in reality and go against established UPR peer protocol.”
“... In the context of the UK’s silence regarding blatant violations of human rights elsewhere in the region, this baseless attack on a partner country is deeply unfortunate,” the statement said.
But Rwanda which received 284 recommendations, dismissed the allegations of human rights violations, noting that there are no unofficial detention centres in the country and rejected the report as "unfounded allegations motivated by the political interest and agenda of those who advance them."
A Rwandan delegation led by Justice Minister and Attorney-General Johnston Busingye said the government supported 160 recommendations, took note of 75 but rejected 49 including the call for Rwanda to join the International Criminal Court.
"There are no prosecutions that target persons simply because they are politicians or journalists or human rights defenders, and the so-called political trials do not exist, nor are there trials against journalists or human rights defenders just for being journalists or human rights defenders," he said.
Among the core recommendations made by the UPR member states tasked Rwanda with retracting its withdrawal from article 34 of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which allows individuals to file complaints against the government.