Commonwealth of Nations

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The Commonwealth of Nations (usually called The Commonwealth) is a voluntary association of independent countries, nearly all of which are former members of the British Empire that chose to join it when they gained independence. It consists of 53 countries, including five G20 members and 31 small states, whose combined population amounts to about a third of the world's population. They are believed to be united by a shared belief in the right to participate in democratic social life.[1] They are also thought to be moving toward a shared belief inhuman rights, although there are divergences in the interpretation of the Commonwealth's aims in that respect.


The transition from British Empire to Commonwealth of Nations began in 1867 with the transformation of Canada from a colony to a self-governing "Dominion" within the British Empire. That was followed by the transformation to Dominion status of Australia in 1901, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910, and Ireland in 1922. After the First World War, the Dominions sought a new constitutional definition, and at the Imperial Conference in 1926, the Dominion Prime Ministers adopted the Balfour Report which defined the Dominions as autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status with Britain, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. That definition was incorporated into British law in 1931 as the Statute of Westminster. It was adopted immediately in Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland (which joined Canada in 1949); and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand followed. India became a Dominion at independence in 1947. The next stage in the transition was the London Declaration of 1949, which recorded the Prime Ministers' agreement that India could remain a member of the Commonwealth after it became a republic in the following year. That agreement completed the transition, and the title "Commonwealth of Nations" finally replaced all previous terminology (which had, from time to time, included "the British colonies", "the British Empire", "the Dominions" and "the British Commonwealth"). Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1947, but since then almost all of Britain's former colonies chose to join the Commonwealth when they became independent - most of them, like India, as republics that do not owe allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, but do recognise her formal status as Head of the Commonwealth.


Queen Elizabeth II is the titular Head of the Commonwealth, but all decisions are taken at the biennial Heads of Government meetings [2]. A Commonwealth Charter is under preparation that is intended to provide a formal constitutional mandate for those decisions. Prior to its adoption they were formally mandated by the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and subsequently by the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration (see Policies below)


(see list of members)
Since 1977, membership has been restricted to countries that meet membership criteria based upon the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles. It has normally been restricted also to countries that have historic constitutional associations with an existing Commonwealth member, but exceptions have been allowed (Mozambique was the first country to join which lacked such an association). A consensus among Heads of Government that those criteria have been breached by the government of a member country can determine the suspension or termination of that country's membership[3]. Six countries suffered suspensions, five of which were temporary (South Africa 1961, Fiji 1987, Pakistan and Nigeria 1996, and Sierra Leone 1997) and one that was of indefinite duration (Zimbabwe 2003) - in addition to which the suspension of Fiji was renewed in 2006 [4].

The Commonwealth has been described as essentially an organisation of small states [5]. It includes 30 states that are defined as small states because they have populations of fewer than 1.5 million. people, including 13 states that are classed as mini-states because they have populations of fewer than 200,000[6].


During the two decades that followed the London Declaration of 1949, the Commonwealth's policy amounted to little more than opposition to racism and colonialism, but the Singapore Declaration of 1971[7] referred also to the merits of democracy and individual liberty', and the Commonwealth's commitment to those ideals was developed and strengthened in the Harare Declaration of 1991 and the adoption of the Latimer House Principles in 2003. That commitment, among others, is expected to be embodied in a (non-binding) "Commonwealth Charter" that is intended to be drawn up by a Ministerial Task Force, and considered by a full meeting of Foreign Ministers in the course of 2012. Other commitments that were in the Harare Declaration, and may be expected to be included in the Charter, include economic and social development, assistance to small states, universal access to education, sustainable development, and the reduction of poverty.


There are two executive organisations within the Commonwealth: the Commonwealth Secretariat[8] and the Commonwealth Foundation[9]. The Commonwealth Secretariat has a multinational staff of about 300, headed by a Secretary-General[10]. Its principle activities are technical assistance, advisory services and policy development. It operates within a budget of less than £50 million, of which the staff budget is about £15 million. The Commonwealth Foundation is a smaller organisation with a budget of less than £5 million including a staff budget of less than £1 million. It is mandated to promote the involvement of civil society in the Commonwealth and it manages a small programme of projects [11] in the areas of culture, governance and democracy, human development and communities and livelihoods with the help of volunteers. The Foundation acts as an umbrella organisation for some 30 Commonwealth associations of professionals. There are over 250 Commonwealth-wide organisations maintaining links across a range of professional fields, including sport, youth and education including some 40 independent Accredited Commonwealth Organisations[12].

The deliberative bodies that have been set up to advise the Heads of Government include the Commonwealth Ministers' Action Group on the Harare Declaration[13], made up of nine Foreign Ministers of member states. There is also a committee of senior officials called "The Committee of the Whole" that meets to plan the next meeting of the Heads of Government Meeting a few weeks before it is due. A biennial Global Small States Conference[14], the first meeting of which was held in 2010, has replaced the former Commonwealth Ministerial Group on Small States.

Political activities

The Secretariat manages six very small programmes of assistance to member countries [15], of which the largest is the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation [16] with a budget of about £30 million. It also responds to requests from member countries to provide election monitors, resolve disputes and provide human rights tuition for police officers. Its political activities are essentially passive in line with a policy decision to intervene only when invited. A more proactive policy has been adopted by the nine-man Ministerial Action Group, which was set up to investigate human rights abuses following the Nigerian Government's execution of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and to respond in accordance with the Millbrook Action Programme[17].
Millbrook programme actions[4] have included:-

  • Nigeria: Suspension between 11 November 1995 and 29 May 1999, followed the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa. A Secretariat mission to meet General Abacha and his government was followed by a full Ministerial Mission, and by discussions in London with representatives of a cross-section of Nigerian civil society. Following successful elections in the early spring of 1999, the Ministerial Action Group recommended to Heads of Government on 29 April that Nigeria should return to full membership.
  • The Gambia: The government was deposed by a military junta in 1994 and opposition political activity was been banned. No Commonwealth response was made to President Yahya Jammeh's 2009 threat to kill anyone associated with human rights groups[18].
  • Sierra Leone: A brief suspension in response to the coup against President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997, was ended when he was restored to power in 1998.
  • Zanzibar: In 1999 the Secretary General assisted the negotiation of an agreement between opposing political groups, but it was only partially implemented.
  • The Solomon Islands. A special envoy appointed by the Secretary General helped to resolve civil disputes 1n 1999 and 2000. A second agreement was reached in 2000 and satisfactory elections were held in 2001.
  • Guyana and Belize: Ministerial groups convened dialogues between the disputing governments;
  • Pakistan: The Action Group condemned the overthrow of the democratically-elected government in 1999ct as a violation of Commonwealth principles and Pakistan was suspended from participation in Commonwealth meetings and limited sanctions were imposed. The suspension was lifted after well-conducted elections in 2002, the repeal of restrictive legislation in 2003 and the restoration of the country’s constitution in 2004. Pakistan was suspended for further six months in 2007, when Musharraf called a state of emergency.
  • Fiji: Suspension in 2000 was prompted by the armed overthrow of the elected government and reinstatement followed elections in 2006. Suspension was imposed again in 2009 following a military coup and the refusal of its leader to undertake to hold elections in 2010.
  • Papua New Guinea: In 2002, a Commonwealth Expert recommended changes to election procedures in view of the unsatisfactory conduct of elections that year.
  • Kenya: Also in 2002, a Commonwealth observer team monitored the legislative elections and found that, despite some areas of concern, the electoral process was credible.
  • Zimbabwe: There had been concern about the government's lack of respect for the rule of law and the flaws in its conduct of the 2000 election, and in 2002 the country was suspended. In 2003, when government's demand for an end to the suspension was refused, it withdrew from the Commonwealth.

Social activities

See also: Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth's principle social and sporting events are the Commonwealth Games, Commonwealth Day, and the Royal Visits. The Commonwealth Games[19] are held every four years, the next being due to take place in 2018 in Gold Coast. Their programmes consist of between ten and seventeen sports, including athletics, swimming, badminton, boxing, hockey, lawn bowls, rugby sevens, netball, squash and weightlifting. Commonwealth Day is celebrated on the second Monday in March every year as part of a week of festivities and events which highlight a theme that is chosen to publicise an aspect of the work of the Commonwealth’s organisation.

The Future of the Commonwealth

A 2009 consultation known as the "Commonwealth Conversation"[20] revealed perceptions of the continued prevalence of undemocratic regimes and human rights abuses, and of a gap between the Commonwealth's words and its actions on those issues. The Heads of Governments responded in their 2009 Affirmation[21] with a call for the creation of an Eminent Persons Group to undertake an examination of options for reform. An Eminent Persons Group was convened and its report was duly submitted. Among the report's recommendations[22] was the proposal to appoint a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, but the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting[23] postponed a decision concerning the adoption of that proposal (and most of the others} and decided not to publish the Eminent Persons Group's report. That outcome has been described as a "significant failure"[24], and has prompted several reassessments of the value of the Commonwealth.


  1. Amartya Sen: Human Rights: Is There a Commonwealth Perspective?, Commonwealth Lecture, 1998
  2. What is CHOGM?
  3. Suspension and Expulsion from the Commonwealth, Commonwealth Secretariat
  4. 4.0 4.1 Daisy Cooper, David Seddon, and Tim Sheehy: Review of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group: on the side of the people?, Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, 2011
  5. Evidence of Professor Phillip Murphy, before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 27 March, 2012
  6. Commonwealth Small States, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  7. Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, 1971
  8. Commonwealth Secretariat
  9. The Commonwealth Foundation
  10. Commonwealth Secretary-General
  11. Commonwealth Foundation workplan and budget 2009-10
  12. Accredited Commonwealth Organisations
  13. Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group
  14. Global Small States Conference
  15. Projects and Programmes and Funds Commonwealth Secretariat
  16. Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, Commonwealth Secretariat
  17. The Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme
  18. Gambia: President’s death threats spark protests around Africa, Afrik News, 25 September 2009
  19. The Commonwealth Games Federation
  20. The Commonwealth Conversation Royal Commonwealth Society, March 2010
  21. Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, November 2009
  22. A Commonwealth of the people: time for urgent reform, (report of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, 2011)
  23. Final communiqué of the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting
  24. Kirby, Michael The future of the Commonwealth of Nations - or does it have one?, lecture to the Lowry Institute for International Policy, 12 October 2011 (video)