Prince Charles told Commonwealth leaders on Friday that the choice to become a republic or abandon the Queen as head of state was theirs and expressed “personal regret” over the legacy of British slavery.
The British heir to the throne spoke at the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda as the host nation faced scrutiny for its rights and a heavily criticized migrant deal with the UK.
Charles represents Queen Elizabeth II as a group of 54 countries, mostly former British colonies, decide on their future relevance and current status.
Republican movements are taking root in a number of Commonwealth countries, with some seeking redress for colonial-era injustices such as slavery.
Charles acknowledged the changes that were taking place and said that the Commonwealth, representing one-third of humanity, would always be “a loose association of independent, self-governing nations”.
“The Commonwealth includes countries that had a constitutional relationship with my family, some that continue to do so, and increasingly those that didn’t,” he told an audience of presidents and prime ministers.
“I want to make it clear, as I said before, that the constitutional arrangement of each member, whether it be a republic or a monarchy, is solely a matter for each member country to decide.”
He also acknowledged that the roots of the Commonwealth, which includes countries from Europe to Africa, Asia and America, “go deep into the most painful period of our history.”
“I cannot describe the depth of my personal sadness at the suffering of so many people as I continue to deepen my own understanding of the enduring impact of slavery,” he said.
– Migrant Row –
Earlier Friday, Charles met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was defending his controversial deal to expel UK migrants thousands of miles away to Rwanda.
The scheme, which has stalled due to legal issues, has met with fierce opposition from the UN, church leaders, human rights groups and reportedly Charles himself.
“What I will say is that people are coming to Rwanda, just like you are today, and a lot of the prejudice against Rwanda needs to be dispelled,” Johnson told British media in Kigali.
He also praised President Paul Kagame for the “leaps and leaps” achieved in Rwanda despite widespread concerns about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in the tiny African nation.
Human rights groups openly question the wisdom of Rwanda accepting the Commonwealth, whose charter enshrines respect for democracy and human rights as core common values.
More than 20 human rights groups and civil society organizations issued an open letter ahead of the summit saying that there is a “climate of fear” under Kagame, whose party came to power after the horrors of the 1994 genocide.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo also called on Britain to condemn Rwanda for its alleged “aggression” in the mineral-rich eastern Congo, where Kigali is accused of fomenting a rebellion.
Johnson himself is facing a political crisis at home after his Conservatives were soundly defeated in a parliamentary by-election.
– Direction and purpose –
Closed Commonwealth summits are missing some heavyweights, including India’s Narendra Modi, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Australia’s Anthony Albanese, who have sent envoys in their stead.
The organization has come under scrutiny for its relevance, but supporters say expanding membership to countries with no historical ties to the UK highlights its value and prestige.
The two new members are Mozambique and host Rwanda. The West African states of Togo and Gabon are expected to join the club at this summit.
“More countries are looking to join, which shows you everything you need to know about the health and vitality of our Commonwealth,” Johnson said.
Friday will also lead to a fight over the leadership of the Commonwealth, which has gotten ugly at times.
Jamaican Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith is running for Patricia Scotland’s Secretary General despite the Commonwealth agreement requiring the incumbent to be unopposed for a second term.
Johnson Smith is backed by the UK, which has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the way Scotland is running the organization.