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Commonwealth of Nations
Flag of the Commonwealth of Nations
Flag of the Commonwealth
Official languages British English
Secretary-General Don McKinnon (since 1999)
Established informally as "British" Commonwealth in 1926, the modern Commonwealth began in 1949.
Member states 53
Headquarters Westminster, London
Official site
The Commonwealth of Nations, usually known as The Commonwealth, is an association of independent sovereign states, almost all of which are former territories of the British Empire.It was once known as the British Commonwealth of Nations or British Commonwealth, and some still call it by that name, either for historical reasons or to distinguish it from the other commonwealths around the world, such as the Commonwealth of Australia and the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. Queen Elizabeth II, who is the Head of State of 16 Commonwealth Realms, is the Head of the Commonwealth; this title, however, does not imply any political power over member nations, and does not automatically belong to the British monarch.The Commonwealth is primarily an organization 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 co-operation between member nations, as well as the promotion of democracy, human rights, and good governance in those nations.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 same person who is the British Monarch as their separate head of state, the majority do not.

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Organisation and objectives
Benefits of membership and contemporary concerns
Cultural links
Commonwealth Business Council
List of Commonwealth members

Origins - Contents

Although performing a vastly different function, the Commonwealth is the successor of the British Empire. In 1884, whilst visiting Adelaide, South Australia, Lord Rosebery described the changing British Empire, as its former colonies became more independent, as a "Commonwealth of Nations". Conferences of British and colonial Prime Ministers had occurred periodically since 1887, leading to the creation of the Imperial Conferences in the late 1920s. The formal organisation of the Commonwealth developed from the Imperial Conferences, 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 formalised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
After World War II, the Empire was gradually dismantled, partly owing to the rise of independence movements in the then-subject territories (such as that started in India under the influence of Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah), 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 Aden (1967) are the only former colonies not to have joined the Commonwealth upon independence. Among the former protectorates and mandates, Egypt (1953), Israel (1948), Iraq (1932), Bahrain (1971), Qatar (1971), United Arab Emirates (1971), Jordan (1946), Kuwait (1961) and Oman (1971) never became members of the Commonwealth. The Republic of Ireland was a member but left the Commonwealth upon becoming a republic in 1949. However, the Ireland Act 1949 was passed by the Parliament of Westminster and gave citizens of the Republic of Ireland a status similar to that of other citizens of the Commonwealth in UK law.The issue of republican status within the Commonwealth was resolved in April 1949 at a Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting in London. India agreed that when it became a republic in January 1950 it would accept the King as ‘symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such Head of the Commonwealth’. The other Commonwealth countries in turn recognised India's continuing membership of the association. (At Pakistan’s insistence, India was not regarded as an exceptional case and it was assumed that other states would be accorded the same treatment as India.) The London Declaration is often seen as marking the beginning of the modern Commonwealth.As the Commonwealth grew, the United Kingdom and the pre-1945 Dominions (a term that was formally dropped in the 1940s) became informally known as the " Old Commonwealth", particularly in the 1960s onwards when some of them differed with poorer, Afro-Asian (or New Commonwealth) members over various issues at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Accusations that the old, "White" Commonwealth has different interests from African Commonwealth nations in particular, as well as charges of racism and colonialism, arose during heated 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 press for democratic reforms in Nigeria and then Zimbabwe. The term "New Commonwealth" is also used in Britain in debates over non-white immigration from these countries.In recent years, the term " White Commonwealth" has been used in a derogatory sense to imply that the wealthier, white nations of the Commonwealth had different interests and goals from the non-white, and particularly the African members. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has used the term frequently to allege that the Commonwealth's attempts to catalyse political changes in his country is motivated by racism and colonialist attitudes and that the White Commonwealth dominates the Commonwealth of Nations as a whole. In Britain, the term New Commonwealth was used in the 1960s and 1970s to refer to recently decolonised countries that were predominantly non-white and underdeveloped. The term was often used in reference to immigration to Britain from "New Commonwealth" countries.

Membership - Contents

World map of the Commonwealth of Nations as of 2005.  Current member states are coloured blue.
World map of the Commonwealth of Nations as of 2005. Current member states are coloured blue.
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, is the smallest, with 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 3.2 million square kilometres (1.2 million square miles).Membership is open to countries that accept the association's basic aims. Members are also required to have a present or past constitutional link to the United Kingdom or to another Commonwealth member. Not all members have had direct constitutional ties to the United Kingdom: some South Pacific countries were formerly under Australian or New Zealand 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.There is only one member of the present Commonwealth which has never had any constitutional link to the British Empire or a Commonwealth member. Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, was admitted in 1995 on the back of the triumphal re-admission of South Africa and Mozambique's first democratic elections, held in 1994. The move was supported by 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 not set a precedent.

Non-members - Contents

Tongue in cheek, Charles de Gaulle twice suggested that France, although it had never been 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 might be seen as a follow-up to a proposal made by Churchill to join the British and legitimate French governments during World War II, in opposition to the puppet regime of Vichy France. David Ben-Gurion suggested that Israel join the Commonwealth, but this proposal was opposed by most Israelis for suggesting dependence upon the United Kingdom, and by the organisation as suggesting a firmer support for Israel than it actually offered.Egypt and Iraq have never shown an interest in joining the Commonwealth, although they are eligible to do so having histories of British rule. Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Oman similarly are not members. In North America, the original 13 British colonies which successfully fought Great Britain for their independence in the American War for Independence possess the requisite history of British rule; however, as they are now member-states of the United States, this political allegiance mitigates serious consideration of applying for such a membership. Nevertheless, Britain and the United States of America maintain close cultural and political ties apart from the Commonwealth as an organization. Hong Kong could not join the Commonwealth following the end of British rule in 1997, as it became a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.

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 had ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth 1987–1997 as a result of a republican coup d'etat, 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 (although they can be suspended from active participation). 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 that 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. Éamon Ó Cuív, 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. The issue does, however, arouse both some hostility and indifference in Ireland, where many people still associate the Commonwealth with British imperialism, even though the majority of member states are now republics. The Republic of Ireland was 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 withdrew its application to remain in the organisation as a republic when it became clear at the 1961 Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference that any such application would be rejected. South Africa was re-admitted to the Commonwealth in 1994, following 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 racialist provisions in the republican constitution were repealed and reapplication for membership made. Hong Kong ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth after the 1997 handover of British rule to China.

Organisation and objectives - Contents

Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth.
Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth.
Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal Head of the Commonwealth. Some members of the Commonwealth, known as Commonwealth Realms, also recognize the Queen as their head of state. However, the majority of members are republics, and a handful of others are indigenous monarchies. The Queen's position as Head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary, and when and if the present Prince of Wales becomes King, it will be for Commonwealth Heads of Government to decide whether he assumes the role of Head of the Commonwealth.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 the United Kingdom 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 - Contents

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 colonization of parts of the Commonwealth by settlers from the British Isles. 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 maintaining active inter-Commonwealth relations, and the organisation's direct political and economic importance has declined. Realist critics have argued that in the 21st Century the organisation is an inherently arbitrary alliance with members that are united only through a historical accident of British colonialism. They argue that the organisation lacks a balanced membership, and point out that it is very unusual for any international organisation to exclude highly important regions of the world such as most of Western Europe and South America from membership. Indeed, many Commonwealth members look increasingly to regional partners, non-Commonwealth as well as Commonwealth, to form their most important alliances.The United Kingdom has forged closer relationships with other European countries through the European Union; the UK'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 the United Kingdom 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. This is reciprocated mainly in the Commonwealth Caribbean, even to the point where in some of the countries (including the UK) resident Commonwealth citizens may even be elected or appointed to the national legislature. However, these privileges are largely not on a reciprocal basis, and it is up to each country to decide what privileges it accords to Commonwealth citizenship, with the exception of the Commonwealth Scholarship. Other privileges that the United Kingdom grants Commonwealth citizens include access to immigration programmes such as the working holidaymaker visa. Some of the privileges offered by the individual countries have eroded over the last few decades, although most countries continue to afford special treatment in the area of immigration (e.g. right of abode in UK for some) and visas.

Cultural links - Contents

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, principally the Commonwealth Scholarship, 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, Spain and Portugal and their respective ex-colonies, and in the former case, other sympathetic governments: the organisation internationale de la Francophonie , the "Comunidad Iberoamericana de Naciones" ( Organization of Ibero-American States) 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 or the Republic of Ireland. This honour is one of the highest in literature.

Commonwealth Business Council - Contents

The Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) was formed at the Edinburgh CHOGM in 1997. The aim was to utilise the global network of the Commonwealth more effectively for the promotion of global trade and investment for shared prosperity.The CBC acts as a bridge for cooperation between business and government, concentrating efforts on these specific areas:
  • Enhancing Trade
  • Mobilising Investment
  • Promoting Corporate Citizenship
  • Facilitating ICT for Development
  • Public Private Partnerships
Commonwealth countries are major stakeholders in the process and success of the Doha Development Agenda. Together the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries account for 30 per cent of the world’s population and about 25 per cent of its international trade and investment. Commonwealth countries account for 40 per cent of WTO membership. CBC’s trade development objectives include encouraging trade facilitation and further liberalisation of services; encouraging developing countries to play an active role in the WTO, and in new trade rounds, by maximising their negotiating strength through cooperative action.The CBC helps to mobilise investment into Commonwealth countries through measures including ensuring access to international capital markets; strengthening 26 domestic capital markets; encouraging regional integration; committing the private sector to work together with governments to help achieve a successful market economy for generating investment.A key feature of CBC is its global membership, comprising corporate members from both developed and developing countries. This gives CBC the capacity to make a special contribution to the debate on corporate citizenship, dominated by developed countries.The CBC has been working to involve private sector engagement in facilitating the implementation of an Information Communications Technologies for Development programme. The CBC programme enhances collaborative partnerships between the various stakeholders including governments, private sector, donor agencies and civil society. Major goals include:
  • Bridge the digital divide for both social and economic development.
  • Promote ICT for development in Commonwealth countries.
  • Promote an experience exchange among stakeholders in Commonwealth countries.
  • Promote business and government cooperation for development.
  • Create awareness and enhance the knowledge of policy makers regarding economic, technical and legal aspects of implementation of ICT for development.
  • Provide and facilitate training and capacity building.
CBC believes that there remains a significant gap for independent support to emerging market governments in the structuring and transacting of ICT infrastructure opportunities. The key CBC objectives are:
  • Examine how support from highly experienced individuals can assist through the creation of an infrastructure technical advisory unit.
  • Provide senior-level government support to provide focused advice.
  • Provide mechanisms that will help governments leverage the huge capacity of the private sector to address the demand for better infrastructure.
The CBC has a dedicated team, CBC Technologies, based in London focused on the international technology and global services industry throughout the Commonwealth.

List of Commonwealth members - Contents

  • List of members of the Commonwealth of Nations by continent
  • List of members of the Commonwealth of Nations by date joined
  • List of members of the Commonwealth of Nations by name
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