The Commonwealth of Nations is an association of independent sovereign states, most of which are former colonies once governed by the United Kingdom as part of the British Empire. It was once known as the British Commonwealth (or British Commonwealth of Nations), and many still call it by that name, either for historical reasons or to distinguish it from the many other commonwealths around the world. The Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, is the Head of the Commonwealth; this title, however, does not imply any political power over member nations.
The Commonwealth is primarily an organisation in which countries with diverse economic backgrounds have an opportunity for close and equal interaction. The primary activities of the Commonwealth are designed to create an atmosphere of economic cooperation between member nations, as well as the promotion of democracy and good governance in them.
The Commonwealth is not a political union of any sort, and does not allow the United Kingdom to exercise any power over the affairs of the organization's other members. While some nations of the Commonwealth, known as Commonwealth Realms, recognize the British Monarch as their head of state (and thus in theory still have some limited political ties to London), the majority do not.
The Commonwealth is the successor of the British Empire; in 1884, while visiting Adelaide, South Australia, Lord Rosebery had described the changing British Empire, as its former colonies became more independent, as a "Commonwealth of Nations". The formal organisation of the Commonwealth has its origins in the Imperial Conferences of the late 1920s (conferences of British and colonial prime ministers had occurred periodically since 1887), where the independence of the self-governing colonies and especially of dominions was recognized, particularly in the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference in 1926, when the United Kingdom and its dominions agreed they were "equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations". This relationship was eventually formalized by the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
The Commonwealth has grown massively in the last few decades. Above, the 10 representatives in 1956, below, the over 50 members in 2000
After World War II, the Empire was gradually dismantled, partly owing to the rise of independence movements in the then-subject territories (most importantly in India under the influence of the pacifist Mohandas Gandhi), and partly owing to the British Government's strained circumstances resulting from the cost of the war. The word "British" was dropped in 1946 from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect the changing position. Burma (1948) and South Yemen (1967) are among the few former colonies/protectorates that did not join the Commonwealth upon independence. Perhaps the world's best-known group of former British colonies, the United States, is not a member of the Commonwealth, as US independence predates the institution by over a hundred years. The Republic of Ireland was a member but left the Commonwealth upon becoming a republic in 1949.
The issue of republican status within the Commonwealth was only resolved in 1950 when it was agreed according to a formula proposed by Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent that India should remain a Commonwealth member despite adopting her present republican constitution. This decision, set out in the London Declaration, provided for members to accept the British monarch as Head of the Commonwealth regardless of their domestic constitutional arrangements, and is now considered by many to be the start of the modern Commonwealth.
As the Commonwealth grew, the United Kingdom and the former "white Dominions" became informally (and often derisively) known as the White Commonwealth, particularly when they differed with poorer, predominantly non-white Commonwealth members over various issues at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Accusations that the "White Commonwealth" has different interests than African Commonwealth nations in particular, as well as charges of racism and colonialism, were frequent during debates concerning Rhodesia in the 1970s, the imposition of sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s and, more recently, over the issue of whether to pressure for democratic reforms in Nigeria and then Zimbabwe.
The Commonwealth encompasses a population of approximately 1.8 billion people, making up about 30% of the world's total. India is the most populous member, with a billion people at the 2001 census, while Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria each contain more than 100 million people. Tuvalu, by contrast, the smallest has only 11,000 inhabitants. The land area of the Commonwealth nations equals about a quarter of the world's land area, with Australia, Canada—the world's second-largest nation by area—and India each having more than 2.5 million square kilometres.
Membership is normally open to countries which accept the association's basic aims. Members are required to have a present or past constitutional link to the United Kingdom or to another Commonwealth member. Consequently, not all members have had direct constitutional ties to the United Kingdom: some South Pacific countries were formerly under Australian administration, while Namibia was governed by South Africa from 1920 until independence in 1990. Cameroon joined in 1995 although only a fraction of its territory had formerly been under British administration through the League of Nations mandate of 1920–46 and United Nations Trusteeship arrangement of 1946–61.
Only one member of the present Commonwealth was never attached to the British Empire or any Commonwealth member: Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony was admitted in 1995 on the back of the triumphal re-admission of South Africa, with support from Mozambique's neighbours, all of whom were members of the Commonwealth and who wished to offer assistance in overcoming the losses incurred as a result of the country's opposition to white minority regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. In 1997, amid some discontent, Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed that Mozambique's admission should be seen as a special case and did not set a precedent.
Charles de Gaulle once suggested that France, though it was never a member of the British Empire (even if for centuries English/British monarchs claimed the title 'King of France') should apply for Commonwealth membership; this idea was never realised, but may be seen as a follow-up to a proposal made by Churchill to keep a French government in exile during World War II instead of the puppet regime of Vichy France. Egypt, Iraq, and Israel have never shown an interest in joining the Commonwealth, despite their histories of British rule. Similarly Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Oman are not members. Nor is the United States, which was formed from former British colonies and maintains close cultural ties with the United Kingdom—for its independence antedates the institution of the Commonwealth by 100 years. Hong Kong also did not join the commonwealth following the end of British rule in 1997, as it was absorbed into a sovereign state, the People's Republic of China.
Because the Commonwealth's member countries were spread out so far and wide around the world, it was common to say (or hear) that "the sun never sets on the British Commonwealth" (originally, "the British Empire"). Even with its declining membership, this remained true, at least on a timezone by timezone basis, until member nation Gambia was realigned from timezone -0100 into Zulu time.
In recent years the Commonwealth has suspended several members "from the Councils of the Commonwealth" for failure to uphold democratic government. Suspended members are not represented at meetings of Commonwealth leaders and ministers, although they remain members of the organisation. Fiji, which for similar reasons had been outside the Commonwealth 1987–1997, was suspended 2000–2001, after a military coup, as was Pakistan from 1999 until 2004. Nigeria was suspended between 1995 and 1999. Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002 over concerns with the electoral and land reform policies of Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF government, before withdrawing from the organisation in 2003.
Termination of membership
As membership is purely voluntary, member governments can choose at any time to leave the Commonwealth. Pakistan left the Commonwealth in 1972 in protest at Commonwealth recognition of breakaway Bangladesh, but rejoined in 1989. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 when Commonwealth Heads of Government refused to lift the country's suspension on human rights and governance grounds.
Although Heads of Government have the power to suspend member states, the Commonwealth has no provision for the expulsion of members. However, Commonwealth Realms which become republics automatically cease to be members unless, like India in 1950, they obtain the permission of other members to remain in the organisation as a republic. The Republic of Ireland did not apply for re-admittance after becoming a republic in 1949, as the Commonwealth at the time did not allow republican membership. However the leader of its Opposition at the time, Eamon de Valera, believed the Republic of Ireland's decision not to apply to stay was a mistake. He and his successor as Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, both considered re-applying. Eamon Ó Cuiv, a minister in the present Irish Government (and himself de Valera's grandson), raised the issue of the Republic's possible reapplication a number of times in the 1990s. However, the issue arouses hostility in Ireland, where some people still associate the Commonwealth with British imperialism, even though the majority of member states are now republics. This makes the Republic of Ireland the first nation ever to leave the Commonwealth and not rejoin.
South Africa was effectively prevented from continuing as a member after it became a republic in 1961 as a result of hostility from many members, particularly those in Africa and Asia as well as Canada, to its policy of apartheid. The South African government chose not to apply to remain in the organisation as a republic since it was clear any such application would have been rejected. South Africa was re-admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995, after the end of apartheid in 1990.
The declaration of a republic in the Fiji Islands in 1987, after military coups designed to deny Indo-Fijians in Fiji political power, was not accompanied by application to remain. Commonwealth membership was held to have lapsed until 1997, after racist provisions in the republican constitution were repealed and reapplication for membership made.
In 2004, Bhutan was invited to participate in the Commonwealth, but refused on grounds of national sovereignty.
Organisation and objectives
Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal Head of the Commonwealth. Some members of the Commonwealth recognize the Queen as head of state. These members are known as Commonwealth Realms; however, the majority of members are republics, and a handful of others are indigenous monarchies. The role of Head of the Commonwealth is best likened to that of a ceremonial president-for-life. In constitutional terms, this position is neither a hereditary monarchy nor an elective presidency. As a result it is not clear whether the current heir apparent to the British and many other Commonwealth thrones, Prince Charles, will automatically assume the position of Head of the Commonwealth or whether another head of state within the Commonwealth might be asked to assume that position.
Since 1965 there has been a London-based Secretariat. The current (2005) Commonwealth Secretary-General is Don McKinnon, a former Foreign Minister of New Zealand. The organisation is celebrated each year on Commonwealth Day, the second Monday in March.
The Commonwealth has long been distinctive as an international forum where highly developed economies (the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) and many of the world's poorer countries seek to reach agreement by consensus. This aim has sometimes been difficult to achieve, as when disagreements over Rhodesia in the 1970s and over apartheid South Africa in the 1980s led to a cooling of relations between Britain and African members.
The main decision-making forum of the organisation is the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where Commonwealth presidents or prime ministers assemble for several days to discuss matters of mutual interest. CHOGM is the successor to the Prime Ministers' Conferences and earlier Imperial Conferences and Colonial Conferences dating back to 1887. There are also regular meetings of finance ministers, law ministers, health ministers, etc.
The most important statement of the Commonwealth's principles is the 1991 Harare Declaration, which dedicated the organisation to democracy and good government, and allowed for action to be taken against members who breached these principles. Before then the Commonwealth's collective actions had been limited by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other members.
Benefits of membership and contemporary concerns
The Commonwealth has often been likened to an English gentlemen's club, and the issue of membership - who is and who is not a member of the organisation - often seems to be more important, and certainly attracts much more attention, than what the organisation actually does. This is because the main benefit of membership is the opportunity for close and relatively frequent interaction, on an informal and equal basis, between members who share many ties of language, culture, and history.
In its early days, the Commonwealth also constituted a significant economic bloc. Commonwealth countries accorded each others' goods privileged access to their markets ("Commonwealth Preference"), and there was a free or preferred right of migration from one Commonwealth country to another. These rights have been steadily eroded, but their consequences remain. Within most Commonwealth countries, there are substantial communities with family ties to other members of the Commonwealth, going beyond the effects of the original colonisation of parts of the Commonwealth by settlers from Britain. Furthermore, consumers in Commonwealth countries retain many preferences for goods from other members of the Commonwealth, so that even in the absence of tariff privileges, there continues to be more trade within the Commonwealth than might be predicted. On the United Kingdom's entry to the European Union, the Lomé Convention preserved some of the preferential access rights of Commonwealth goods to the UK market.
In more recent decades there has been a mutual decline of interest in each other, and the Commonwealth's direct political and economic importance has declined. Britain has forged closer relationships with other European countries through the European Union; Britain's entry was widely felt as a betrayal by citizens of the "Old Commonwealth" whose economies had been developed on the assumption of access to British markets. Similarly, former British colonies have forged closer relationships with non-Commonwealth trading partners and closer geographic neighbours. Reaction to immigration from the new Commonwealth countries into Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s led to the restriction of the right of migration. The Commonwealth today mainly restricts itself to encouraging community between nations and to placing moral pressure on members who violate international laws, such as human rights laws, and abandon democratically-elected government. Key activities today include training experts in developing countries and assisting with and monitoring elections.
Some Commonwealth countries give Commonwealth citizens privileges that are not accorded to aliens: for example, in the United Kingdom, the right to vote is given to all Commonwealth citizens resident in that country. However, these privileges are not on a reciprocal basis, and it is up to each country to decide what privileges it accords to Commonwealth citizenship. These privileges have been largely eroded over the last few decades, although many countries continue to afford special treatment in the area of immigration and visas.
The Commonwealth is also useful as an international organisation that represents significant cultural and historical links between wealthy first-world countries and poorer developing nations with diverse social and religious backgrounds. The common inheritance of the English language and literature, the common law, and British systems of administration all underpin the club-like atmosphere of the Commonwealth.
Mostly as a result of their history of British rule, many Commonwealth nations share certain identifiable traditions and customs that are elements of a shared Commonwealth culture. Examples include common sports such as cricket and rugby, driving on the left, parliamentary and legal traditions, and the use of British rather than American spelling conventions (see Commonwealth English). None of these is universal within the Commonwealth countries, nor exclusive to them, but all of them are more common in the Commonwealth than elsewhere.
The Commonwealth countries share many links at non-governmental levels, with over a hundred non-governmental organisations that are organised on a Commonwealth wide basis, notably in the areas of sport, culture, education, and other charitable sectors. A multi-sports championship called the Commonwealth Games is held every four years, two years after each Olympic Games. As well as the usual athletic disciplines, the games include sports popular throughout the Commonwealth such as bowls. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is an important vehicle for academic links, particularly through offering scholarships for students to study in universities in other Commonwealth countries. There are also many non-official associations that bring together individuals who work within the spheres of law and government, such as the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
In recent years the Commonwealth model has inspired similar initiatives on the part of France and Portugal and their respective ex-colonies, and in the former case, other sympathetic governments: the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie and the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (Community of Portuguese-speaking countries).
The shared history of British rule has also produced a substantial body of writing in many languages - Commonwealth literature. There is an Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) with nine chapters worldwide. ACLALS holds an international conference every three years. The 13th Triennial was held in Hyderabad, India, in August 2004; the next will be held in 2007 in Calgary, Canada.
In 1987, the Commonwealth Foundation established the Commonwealth Writers Prize "to encourage and reward the upsurge of new Commonwealth fiction and ensure that works of merit reach a wider audience outside their country of origin." Caryl Phillips won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2004 for A Distant Shore. Mark Haddon won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2004 Best First Book prize worth £3,000 for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Although not affiliated with the Commonwealth in an official manner, the prestigious Booker Prize is awarded annually to an author from a Commonwealth country. This honour is one of the highest in literature.
List of Commonwealth members
The Constitutional Structure of the Commonwealth, by K C Wheare. Clarendon Press, 1960. ISBN 0313236240
The Commonwealth in the World, by J D B Miller. Harvard University Press, 1965. ISBN 0674147006
The Commonwealth Experience: From British to Multiracial Commonwealth, by N Mansergh. University of Toronto Press, 1982. ISBN 0802024920
Making the New Commonwealth, by R J Moore. Clarendon Press, 1988. ISBN 0198201125
Last updated: 10-14-2005 00:01:23