As Prince Charles cements the Commonwealth, challenges lie ahead

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KAMPALA, Uganda – Prince Charles has become the first British royal to visit Rwanda, representing Queen Elizabeth II as honorary head of the Commonwealth at a summit where both the 54-nation bloc and the monarchy face uncertainty.

Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited a memorial to the 1994 Rwandan genocide on Tuesday, making their first appearance in Kigali, the capital, where they are attending this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

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 an organization that is rapidly disintegrating”. But he said Charles’ decades-long commitment to environmental issues could prove to be an asset with the bloc of low island nations on the front lines of climate change.

“His interest in climate and concern in the environment is very real,” Owens said.

This week’s summit in Rwanda will address challenges such as climate change and how to lift millions out of poverty.

Charles was formally 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 image. He is running for the 96-year-old at the top of the bloc for the second time, making his first in Sri Lanka in 2013, and is seen as poised for his future role as king.

The Commonwealth itself struggles to establish a strong identity. It faces criticism for not doing enough to look after the economic interests of poorer members, including Rwanda itself. One of the weaknesses of the former British colony group is that it is not a trading bloc at a time most nations would like it to.

Some critics, with China as Africa’s largest trading partner, say the Commonwealth risks being too ceremonial.

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

Mojomi said wealthy bloc members “use it for soft power, but when it comes to the real issues, like how to increase trade and access to markets, that’s the challenge.”

While the Queen is widely respected at home and abroad, Charles’ relationship with the public is more complex. Days before he traveled to Rwanda, the Times of London reported that he described the British government’s plan to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda as “appalling”.

The report, obtained from an anonymous source, is widely seen as an attempt to distance himself from the controversial – which critics say is illegal – policy that threatens to overwhelm his visit. Legal challenges halted a flight that would have brought the first group 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 every member of the Commonwealth emerged as a strong topic this week, as people demand a more dynamic bloc.

“We must ensure that no one is left behind, like small and developing countries,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, adding that he wanted to see a bloc that “when we talk about the Commonwealth, we actually mean it is the Commonwealth, not just involved in a few of the many.” of the 54 countries.

The union, whose member states range from vast India to tiny Tuvalu, faces a new challenge as some debate removing the Queen as head of state. She is head of state in 14 Commonwealth countries, but Barbados cut ties with the monarchy in November, and several other Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, say they plan to follow suit.

While countries can remain in the Commonwealth if they become republics, this increases uncertainty about an organization that the Queen’s strong personal commitment helped unite.

Questions remain about the bloc’s value among poorer member states, with some critics scoffing at Africa’s ties to an organization they see as tainted by memory of slavery and colonialism.

“Look at the state of this year’s (Commonwealth summit) host. Rwanda was not colonized by the British but by the Belgians… It’s like a pretty village that lets one bully fall into the arms of another to make the former jealous but also to gain privileges and protection from mixing with the powerful, said analyst Nicholas Sengoba in a column in Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 after relations with former sponsor France soured over its alleged responsibility for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

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

___ Lawless reports from London.

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