Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited a memorial to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, their first appearance in Kigali, the capital, where they are this week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Royal historian Ed Owens said the 73-year-old heir to the British throne will find that when he succeeds his mother as the leader of the Commonwealth, “he will be put in charge of a rapidly disintegrating organisation”.
But Charles’ decades-long commitment to environmental issues could be an asset to the bloc that includes low-lying island states that are on the front lines 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 is about challenges such as climate change and how we can lift millions out of poverty.
Charles was officially designated the Queen’s successor as the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth in 2018, although some have suggested that a non-royal leader would give the Commonwealth a modern profile. He replaces the 96-year-old queen at the top of the bloc for a second time, first in Sri Lanka in 2013, in preparation for his future role as monarch.
The Commonwealth itself struggles to work out a strong identity. It has been criticized for not doing enough to promote 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 countries want.
With China as Africa’s largest trading partner, some critics say, the Commonwealth is in danger of becoming a largely ceremonial group.
“The challenge for the Commonwealth has always been how the developed countries can help the 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 how to increase trade and market access, that’s where the challenge lies,” Mugume said.
While the Queen is widely respected at home and abroad, Charles’ relationship with the public is more complex. Days before he flew to Rwanda, London times The newspaper reported that it had called a British government plan to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda “appalling”.
The anonymously obtained report was widely seen as an attempt to distance itself from controversial — and, critics say, illegal — policies that threaten to overshadow his visit. Legal challenges halted a flight that would have brought the first group of asylum seekers just days before the summit.
Charles has praised 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 every member of the Commonwealth has emerged as a strong theme this week, with people demanding a more dynamic bloc.
“We need to make sure that no one is left behind, like small and developing countries,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on Tuesday, adding that he wants to see a bloc where “when we talk about the Commonwealth, we actually mean it’s the Commonwealth, not just for a few of the many 54 countries.”
The bloc, with 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 cut ties with the monarchy in November, and several other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, say they plan to follow suit.
While countries can remain in the Commonwealth if they become republics, it increases the uncertainty surrounding an organization that helped unite the Queen’s strong personal commitment.
Questions remain about the bloc’s value among poorer member states, with some critics scoffing at Africa’s ties to an organization they believe is tainted by the memory of slavery and colonialism.
“Look at the case of this year’s host (Commonwealth summit). Rwanda was not colonized by the British but by the Belgians… It’s like the village belle who leaves one bully behind and falls into the arms of another to to make the former jealous but also to still have the privileges and protections to nestle with the powerful,” analyst Nicholas Sengoba said in a column in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper.
Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 after ties with former benefactor France were severed over its alleged responsibility for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
In Rwanda, Charles meets survivors and perpetrators of the genocide and visits a church where the remains of tens of thousands of victims are buried.