Dr Anne GallagherAnne Gallagher chairing the Foreign Ministers’ Roundtable with Civil Society. [photo: Victoria Schofield]

Yet again Eric, my taxi driver, had effortlessly transported me to the Kigali Convention Centre on another beautiful sunny day in Kigali and, alas, my last. I’d spent my last evening the night before at a ‘business networking’ dinner hosted by the Private Sector Federation/Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs and the Commonwealth Business Network, at the invitation of the Executive Director, Commonwealth Businesswomen’s Network, Arif Zaman; my table companions were impressive women from Kenya, Cameroon and Rwanda. As we enjoyed plentiful Rwandan food and listened to an exceptionally good Rwandan singing duo, whose repertoire included Adele and Celine Dion, I heard about these women’s respective enterprises: one even passed around some sweet-smelling coconut lotion for us to sample to advertise her product.  The common theme on which we all agreed, from our diverse backgrounds, was the importance of women’s economic empowerment, enhanced by the ability to work from home, reinforced by lockdown. ‘E-commerce,’ my Kenyan neighbour on my left emphasised, ‘is essential for women to enable them to work while looking after the children.’

The following day, with the ‘heads of government’ ensconced on their retreat, I sat listening to the deliberations at the Foreign Ministers’ Roundtable with Civil Society; chaired by Dr Anne Gallagher AO, (Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation and member of the Round Table’s Editorial board). As the moderator, she skilfully encouraged one member of civil society to comment, while a foreign minister or their representative responded. As in the People’s Forum, the issue of LGBTQ rights in Commonwealth countries was raised. It fell to the Foreign Minister from Botswana, Dr Lemogang Kwape, to remind us that Africa is a ‘very conservative society’; even so, he said the 2019  ruling in Botswana (upheld by the Supreme Court in 2021), which de-criminalised same sex relationships, was a ‘landmark’ and a sign of the Commonwealth moving with the times. ‘In the next few years it may be something else.’

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Harjeet Singh, a senior advisor to Climate Action Network, who I’d met at the People’s Forum, was emphatic that it was not necessary to say what needs to be done, ‘most of it we all know’; instead he wanted to highlight that ‘we are living in a world of multiple crises, people are suffering and they don’t have any patience to hear just empty words… We need targets and milestones and accountability.’ Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon picked up the gauntlet to respond. ‘The challenges are immense,’ he said, agreeing that there was so much more to be done: ‘we need your help, to have accountability … more broadly on human rights we need to look at the lens of the country as it is there; where we make progress is where we learn from each other.’

As the morning progressed the same format continued. Picking up on the People’s Forum session on freedom of expression, Dr Gallagher reminded the audience of the clause in the Commonwealth Charter which confirms freedom of expression as a Commonwealth value; this left the way open for further discussion on the difficulties journalists face as well as the challenge of unregulated social media and ‘fake news’; the theme which emerged was that the government needs civil society and that civil society needed to engage in an effective way.

Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas, explained that an ‘adversarial relationship’ with government frequently occurred because ‘in civil society we are on the ground while the government has a bird’s eye view.’ In response, David Francis, the Foreign Minister from Sierra Leone, described how a ‘cooperative’ relationship worked best when the relationship was ‘issue based’, as when, in 2021 Sierra Leone repealed the death penalty – the 23rd African country to do so.

As the discussion continued with comments from the floor, Brian Speers, President of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, interjected to ask the ministers and foreign ministers to ‘get a move on’ with approving the document on ‘Commonwealth principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance’ which had  been ‘knocking about for too long.’ Now scheduled for discussion at the next CHOGM in 2024, we were all alert to the fact that it has been four years since the document was drafted.

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Much more of course was said and the session – one of the best I’d attended because of its inclusivity with government representatives – concluded with Dr Gallagher reminding us that everyone in the room either had a little or a lot of power. ‘We can ask for accountability all the time, but all the time we should be thinking about our personal accountability. What are we doing to make things fair?’

By midday the Kigali Convention Centre was emptying out and everyone began to go home which proved more challenging than you’d think because several roads had been closed, pending the return to Kigali of the heads of government. Having made my way to the improbably named Hotel Portofino, ‘The Darling of Kigali’ (which I explained to Eric, who did not speak Italian, literally meant ‘Fine Port’) for one last side-event discussion on ‘Technology and Innovation’ – an Agenda for Rwanda’s term as Commonwealth Chair – hosted by the University of Kigali, yet again the leitmotif  was action not words.

My return to Kigali International Airport was only made possible by Eric turning into a rally driver, swerving and cutting his way through the densest traffic jam I’ve ever experienced because of the road blocks. As we sped through the night, the lights twinkling on the land of the thousand hills, I’d learned a lot during my week in Rwanda listening to so many good intentions. When I entered the airport I saw President Kagame – the new chair-in-office – speaking on television. With the release of the 117-clause CHOGM 2022 Communique and the news that henceforward the Commonwealth would have 56 members with the entry of Gabon and Togo, my hope, as always, is that somehow, somewhere progress in all the areas of importance will be made.

Next up: CHOGM Samoa 2024.

Victoria Schofield is the chair of the Round Table editorial board.

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