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Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Rwanda’s progress toward meeting the Commonwealth’s shared core values.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and take this opportunity to remind colleagues of my interest as the chair of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit.

Rwanda has made progress towards meeting the Commonwealth's core values, in the areas of democratic process; rule of law; good governance; protection of human rights and equality of opportunity; and economic policies aimed at improving the welfare of the public.  While much remains to be done in all these areas, the Government assess that this progress is sufficient for the UK to support Rwanda’s bid to join the Commonwealth.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Have the Government had any discussions with their Rwandan counterparts about implementing the recommendations made by the EU electoral mission after the 2008 elections in that country? Have the Government received any assurances from the Rwandan Government, given that the fundamental shortcomings identified by the EU mission will be eradicated before future elections? Finally, will the Government take such matters into consideration when the application by Rwanda to join the Commonwealth is considered at this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad?

My Lords, we are concerned about and anxious to discuss with our colleagues the outcome of the observer review of the 2008 elections and the lessons to be learnt for the 2010 presidential elections. The question of Rwanda’s access to the Commonwealth will be based on a report from the Secretary-General and will be discussed towards the end of this week. We cannot predict the result because it is a decision for all the Commonwealth nations, except to say that at this stage we know of no opposition. We want to see Rwanda in the Commonwealth so that we can carry on encouraging the Government there. Membership will help Rwanda to overcome its weaknesses in areas such as press freedom and political space. The Commonwealth and its values will be of help in those terms.

My Lords, undoubtedly Rwanda has made great strides since the genocide of 1994, but it was a Belgian colony and mainly Francophone. I understand the President of Mozambique, but is it still relevant to have to have had some form of historic connection with this country before becoming part of the Commonwealth?

My Lords, in 2007, the Commonwealth amended the status of its application requirements from being an historical part of the Commonwealth to include countries that are in close association with Commonwealth countries. In Rwanda, that is the case with at least three other countries that are part of the east African economic area and therefore there is a clear relationship which can be encouraged. These issues are judged on a case-by-case basis against the same criteria that we apply to every other nation in the Commonwealth, and those embrace the values of the Commonwealth and all they imply.

My Lords, perhaps I may come to the support of the Minister in his heavy workload at the Dispatch Box this afternoon by agreeing with him that while obviously each applicant for membership of the Commonwealth must be evaluated and judged strictly on the standards set by the Commonwealth, and that that must apply to Rwanda as it does to everywhere else, is it not interesting that Rwanda is one of four or five countries now applying to join, which indicates that the Commonwealth is a most attractive platform in modern, 21st century conditions? Does that not confirm and indeed strengthen the view that HMG should pay as much attention as possible to a full, lively and active membership of the Commonwealth in promoting the interests and foreign policy of this nation?

I thank the noble Lord for his support. I concur that the Commonwealth is quite possibly the most popular international body that other countries are seeking to join, and that we should encourage that where it is appropriate to do so. I would not accept that the Government are not doing everything they can to support and encourage the Commonwealth. Indeed, it has to be said that one of the attractions of the Commonwealth may well be that, unlike the European Union, SADC and Mercosur, covering the horn of South America, it is not an economic trading body, which can cause certain problems in other circumstances.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that bringing Cyprus into the EU before any agreement was reached between the northern and southern parts of the island was rather premature? Are there not some parallels here? In the light of, for example, the report of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, is it not right that Rwanda should make far more progress in terms of human rights, press freedom and the actions being taken by Rwandans in the neighbouring DRC? Should not all those issues be addressed before Rwanda is admitted to the Commonwealth?

My Lords, I believe that those issues will be considered as part of the Secretary-General’s report to CHOGM. The report referred to by the noble Baroness was rather sweeping, and I personally did not think it took sufficient account of the tremendous progress that has been made, such as the abolition of the death penalty. Uniquely in the world, the Rwandan parliament has a majority of women members. More needs to be done, but a lot has already happened, and the genuine criticisms made in that report about press freedom and political space could be better addressed by Rwanda’s admission to the Commonwealth than by its exclusion.

My Lords, do the Government agree that to exclude Rwanda from the Commonwealth at this point in its development might exacerbate the aggression that is coming from eastern Congo, not only from the RPF but from other militia groups?

My Lords, I listen to the noble Baroness’s wise words in the knowledge that she has visited that country as part of a parliamentary delegation and has seen it at first hand. I am sure that she is right: if there is a great value in the Commonwealth, as has been indicated from opposition Benches and supported around the House, it is that it brings people together in dialogue without necessarily some of the other constraining features. I am sure that Rwanda’s accession to the Commonwealth, if it happens this week, will be a boost both for that country and other countries in the region.

My Lords, the Minister may well be aware that Mr William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary in another place, has given his support for countries interested in joining the Commonwealth, including Algeria and Yemen. Have Her Majesty’s Government done a thorough assessment of how far Algeria and Yemen support the Commonwealth’s shared core values?

My Lords, I can either dodge that question by saying it is rather a long way from Rwanda; I could avoid it by saying—accurately—that it is not in my brief; or I could say that I think that they have a way to go.

My Lords, notwithstanding some of the shortcomings in Rwanda, 1 million people died there during the course of the genocide. Should we not do all that we possibly can to help Rwanda make progress for the future? Is not one practical thing that we could do now to bring to justice those genocidaires living in this country who are now eligible for prosecution as a result of the amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill moved by my noble friend Lady D’Souza, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, me and others? Can the Minister give an assurance that he will report back to the House, as soon as is convenient, on what progress we have made in bringing to justice those living in this country who are responsible for many of the deaths in Rwanda?

My Lords, I must be very careful in what I say. There are cases which are subject to appeal and therefore it would not be appropriate for me to make any individual reference. Justice and reconciliation are essential parts of bringing together countries which have been torn apart by ethnic, religious or other issues. I shall take note of the noble Lord’s question and consider it.