KAMPALA, Uganda — Prince Charles has become the first British royal to visit Rwanda as he represents Queen Elizabeth II as ceremonial head of the Commonwealth at a summit as the bloc of 54 nations and the monarchy face uncertainty .
Royal historian Ed Owens said the 73-year-old heir to the British throne may find that when he succeeds his mother as Commonwealth leader, “he finds himself at the helm of a rapidly disintegrating organisation” . But Charles’ decades-long commitment to environmental issues could become an asset for the EU, including 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 tackle challenges such as climate change and how to lift millions out of poverty.
Charles was officially named the Queen’s successor in 2018 as ceremonial head of the Commonwealth, despite suggestions that a non-royal leader would bring a modern image to the Commonwealth. He represented the 96-year-old queen at an EU summit for the second time, first in Sri Lanka in 2013, and was seen as preparing for his future role as monarch.
The Commonwealth itself is also trying to forge a strong identity. It has faced criticism for not doing enough to care for the economic interests of poorer members, including Rwanda itself. A weakness of the bloc, which is mostly former British colonies, is that it is not a trading bloc at a time when most countries want to trade.
Some critics say the Commonwealth has the potential to become a largely ceremonial bloc as China is Africa’s largest trading partner.
“The challenge for the Commonwealth has always been how rich countries can help poor countries transform their economies,” said James Mugum, a retired Ugandan diplomat who helped organize the Commonwealth Summit in 2007.
Wealthy members of the EU “use it for soft power, but when it comes to practical issues, such as how to increase trade and market access, that’s where the challenge lies,” Mugum said.
While the Queen is widely respected at home and abroad, Charles has a more complicated relationship with the public. A few days before his flight to Rwanda, The Times of London reported that he had called the British government’s plans to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda “appalling”.
The anonymously sourced report is widely seen as an attempt to distance itself from controversial — and, critics say, illegal — policies that risked overshadowing his visit. A legal challenge blocked the flight that brought the first asylum seekers days before the summit.
Charles praised the Commonwealth’s potential to play a role 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 Commonwealth member has been a strong theme this week, with calls for a more dynamic bloc.
“We have to make sure that no one is left behind, such as small and developing countries,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, adding that he would like to see a “when we talk about the Commonwealth, we actually mean the Commonwealth, not only It’s common in only a handful of 54 countries.”
Members of the bloc, from vast India to tiny Tuvalu, face new challenges as some discuss removing the Queen as head of state. She is the head of state of 14 Commonwealth countries, but Barbados cut ties with the monarchy in November, and several other Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, have said they plan to follow suit.
While the country could remain in the Commonwealth if it became a republic, that has added uncertainty around the Queen’s strong personal commitment to helping unite the organisation.
Questions remain about the value of the EU in poorer member states, with some critics mocking Africa’s ties to an organisation they see as tainted by memories of slavery and colonialism.
“Look at this year’s (Commonwealth Summit) host. Rwanda was colonized not by the British but by the Belgians…like the beauty of the village leaving one bully and falling into the arms of another, making the former jealous but still getting The privilege and protection of cohabiting with the strong,” said analyst Nicholas Sengoba in a column for Uganda Daily.
Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 after relations with France, its former benefactor, were in friction over its alleged responsibility for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
In Rwanda, Charles will meet genocide survivors and perpetrators and visit a church where the remains of tens of thousands of victims are buried.
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