KIGALI (Reuters) -The newly-expanded Commonwealth made broad commitments on Saturday to address climate change and boost trade, concluding a summit aimed at shoring up the relevance of a group that evolved from the British empire.
The club, whose 56 members range from India to the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, covers some 2.5 billion people or about one-third of the world's population. It presents itself as a network for cooperation, but critics say it needs to carve out a more concrete role and be less of a talking shop.
The week-long summit in Rwanda's capital Kigali included comments from Britain's Prince Charles expressing sorrow for his country's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the first time the Commonwealth has publicly addressed the subject.
Some members urged the organisation to go further by discussing reparations to countries hurt by the slave trade.
There was no mention of the topic in the final communique or news conference, which instead focused on broad policy pronouncements about sustainable development, health care and gender equality.
A "Living Lands Charter" stated that Commonwealth countries would work to implement previously-signed international deals like the Paris climate agreement.
"We know that we are at code red when it comes to climate change and that the small member states are facing a crisis that could be existential," Patricia Scotland, re-elected during the summit as Commonwealth secretary-general, told reporters.
Scotland also touted rising trade between Commonwealth members, which she said she expected to hit $2 trillion per year by 2030 after collapsing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gabon and Togo were newly accepted into the Commonwealth, part of a trend of French-speaking African states seeking new alliances beyond Paris' old networks of influence.
"If the Commonwealth wasn't alive and vibrant and constructive, why would countries such as Gabon ... and Togo join?" Michael Moussa Adamo, Gabon's foreign minister, told Reuters.
Mostly absent from the summit's public discussions were awkward issues concerning the host country.
Many human rights groups consider Rwanda among Africa's most repressive countries. The U.S. State Department has cited credible reports of arbitrary killings by the government, including politically motivated reprisal killings abroad.
Neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting rebels waging a major offensive in eastern Congo.
Rwanda denies all of these charges. At the news conference, Rwandan President Paul Kagame defended Rwanda's human rights record and accused Western governments of hypocrisy.
"There is nobody that is in prison in Rwanda that should not be there," he said. "Actually there are people who are not in prison who should be there."
Also in the spotlight has been Britain's controversial policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, described as "appalling" by Prince Charles, according to British media.
Kagame defended his country's role and denied it was motivated by the 120 million pounds ($147 million) Britain is initially paying Rwanda to house the asylum seekers. The arrangement was put on hold last week after the European Court of Human Rights blocked the first flight to Rwanda.
"We try to do our best to give them a sense of security and normalcy," he said. "If they don't come, we won't complain. It's not like we are dying to have people come to us in this manner."
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(Reporting by Ayenat Mersie; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Graff)