KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) – Prince Charles has become the first British royal to visit Rwanda, representing Queen Elizabeth II as ceremonial head of the Commonwealth at a summit where both the 54-nation bloc and the monarchy face uncertainty.
Royal historian Ed Owens said the 73-year-old heir to the British throne may find that when he succeeds his mother as leader of the Commonwealth, “he finds himself in charge of a rapidly disintegrating organization”. But Charles’ decades of commitment to environmental issues could be an asset to the bloc that includes low-lying island states on the front lines of climate change, he said.
“His care 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 lifting millions out of poverty.
Charles was officially appointed to be the Queen’s successor as ceremonial head of the Commonwealth in 2018, although some have suggested that a non-royal leader would give the Commonwealth a modern profile. He is replacing the 96-year-old queen at the bloc’s summit for a second time, first in Sri Lanka in 2013, seen as preparation for her future role as monarch.
The Commonwealth itself struggles to carve out a strong identity. It faces criticism for not doing enough to look after the economic interests of the poorest members, including Rwanda itself. One weakness of the group of former British colonies is that it is not a trading bloc at a time when trade is what most nations want.
With China as Africa’s biggest trading partner, some critics say, the Commonwealth risks being a largely ceremonial group.
“The challenge for the Commonwealth has always been how developed nations can help poor countries transform themselves economically,” said James Mugume, a retired Ugandan diplomat who helped organize the Commonwealth summit in 2007.
Rich members of the bloc “use it for soft power, but when it comes to real issues like increasing trade and market access, that’s where the challenge lies,” Mugume said.
While the Queen is widely respected at home and abroad, Charles’ relationship with the public is more complex. Days before flying to Rwanda, the Times of London reported that he had called a plan by the British government to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda “terrifying”.
The anonymously sourced report was widely seen as an attempt to distance himself from the controversial – and, critics say, illegal – politics that threatens to overshadow his visit. Legal challenges prevented a flight that would have brought the first batch of asylum seekers just days before the summit.
Charles praised the Commonwealth’s potential to make a difference on issues such as climate change and opportunities for young people, “and, in doing so, be an unparalleled force for good.”
The need to benefit all Commonwealth members emerged as a strong theme this week, with people demanding a more dynamic bloc.
“We must ensure that no one is left behind, like small and developing nations,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, adding that he wants to see a bloc where “when we talk about the Commonwealth, we actually want to say it is the Commonwealth, not just being common to some of the many 54 countries.”
The bloc, with member states ranging from vast India to tiny Tuvalu, faces a new challenge as some discuss removing the queen as 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 suit.
While countries can remain in the Commonwealth if they become republics, this adds to the uncertainty surrounding an organization that the Queen’s strong personal commitment has helped to unite.
Doubts remain about the bloc’s value among poorer member states, with some critics scoffing at Africa’s ties to an organization they see tainted by the memory of slavery and colonialism.
“Take the case of this year’s host (Commonwealth Summit). Rwanda was not colonized by the British, but by the Belgians… It is like the beauty of the village who leaves one bully and falls into the arms of another to make the first one jealous, but also to obtain the privileges and protection of being sheltered with the powerful. ,” analyst Nicholas Sengoba said in a column in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper.
Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 after ties with former benefactor France frayed over his alleged responsibility for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In Rwanda, Charles will meet with survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, visiting a church where the remains of tens of thousands of victims are buried.
___ Lawless reported from London.