Sunday, December 06, 2009

Commonwealth of Nations: Soft power and stability in the Great Lakes region of Africa

Last Saturday, Rwanda became just the second state admitted to the Commonwealth of Nations, formally the British Commonwealth, without a British colonial past or a constitutional link to Britain. In doing so, Rwanda also became the fourth state of the East African Community to also be a member of the Commonwealth. (Burundi is now the only member of the EAC to not be a part of the Commonwealth network.)

Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth came over the objections of the Commonwealth network’s human rights watchdog. Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative released a report on Rwanda, in which it claimed that Rwanda had not lived up to the principles of human rights and democracy set out in the 1991 Harare Declaration. The CHRI team dispatched to investigate Rwanda sighted numerous transgressions committed by Kigame’s regime, including suppression of speech and association, and a tendentious judicial system. Moreover, the CHRI claims that since 1994, Rwanda has been an incredibly destabilizing force in the region, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it has usurped the political authority of the state and fostered an illicit economy based on the plunder of the DRC’s natural resources.

Despite its perceived irrelevance, the Commonwealth is, nevertheless, a high-profile organization that provides a number of political, economic, and cultural benefits. Its greatest strength is probably its ‘soft power’ which manifests itself as informal, cooperative links between members. However, some benefits are more tangible. Commonwealth nations account for 20 percent of the international trade and investment and constitute 40 percent of WTO membership, making the network a strong lobbying presence when it comes to the international economy.

Of course, strength of the Commonwealth's soft power can be measured by its ability to establish international norms of behavior among its member states. Admission to the Commonwealth requires that applicants meet certain conditions, including democratic governance, judicial independence, good governance, transparency, and respect for human rights. Consequently, Rwanda's admission to the Commonwealth does - to some extent - bring a sense of legitimacy to the actions, internally and externally, of the Kigame regime. This is troublesome. If the effectiveness of informal organizations, such as the Commonwealth, is to be measured in terms their norm-setting capacity, then Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth sets a dangerous precedent for the stability of a region in which Rwanda’s influence will only continue to grow.

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