KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Prince Charles is the first British king to visit Rwanda, replacing 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 if he succeeds his mother as leader of the Commonwealth, he is “taking responsibility for a rapidly disintegrating organisation”. But Charles’ decades-long commitment to environmental issues could prove an asset to the bloc, which includes low-lying island nations on the frontlines of climate change, he said.
“His concern 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 how to lift millions out of poverty.
Charles was formally appointed to succeed the Queen as ceremonial head of the Commonwealth in 2018, although some believed a non-royal leader would give the Commonwealth a modern profile. He is representing the 96-year-old Queen at the bloc’s summit for a second time, first in Sri Lanka in 2013, in preparation for his future role as monarch.
The Commonwealth itself strives to carve out a strong identity. It has been criticized for not doing enough to look after the economic interests of poorer members, including Rwanda itself. A weakness of the group of mostly 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 largest 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 diplomat in Uganda who helped organize the 2007 Commonwealth Summit.
The bloc’s wealthy members “use it for soft power, but when it comes to real issues, like improving trade and market access, that’s where the challenge lies,” Mugume said.
While the Queen is widely respected at home and abroad, Charles’s relationship with the public is more complex. Days before he flew to Rwanda, the Times of London newspaper reported that he had called the British government’s plan to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda “appalling”.
The report, from anonymous sources, was widely seen as an attempt to distance himself from the controversial – and, critics say, illegal – policies that threaten to overshadow his visit. Court challenges prevented a flight that would have brought the first group of asylum seekers just days before the summit.
Charles has lauded the Commonwealth’s potential to make a difference on issues such as climate change and opportunities for young people, “while being an unparalleled force for good”.
The need to benefit all Commonwealth members has emerged as a strong theme this week, with people demanding a more dynamic bloc.
“We have to make sure nobody is left behind, like small and developing countries,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, adding he wanted to see a bloc where “when we talk about the Commonwealth, we actually mean it.” , it is the Commonwealth, not just a few of the many 54 countries in common.”
The bloc, which includes member states ranging 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 realms, but Barbados severed ties with the monarchy in November and several other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, say they intend to follow suit.
While countries can remain in the Commonwealth if they become republics, this adds to the uncertainty surrounding an organization which the Queen’s strong personal involvement helped bring together.
Questions remain about the bloc’s value among poorer member states, with some critics scoffing at Africa’s ties to an organization they say is tainted by memories of slavery and colonialism.
“Look at the case of the host of this year’s (Commonwealth Summit). Rwanda was not colonized by the British, but by the Belgians… It’s like the village beauty who leaves a tyrant and falls into the arms of another, to make the former jealous, but also to still have the privileges and the To receive protection, to be entrenched with those in power,” analyst Nicholas Sengoba said in a column for Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper.
Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 after severe ties with former benefactor France 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 called from London.