The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states formed by the United Kingdom and most of its former colonies. It was formerly known as the British Commonwealth, and many still call it by that name, either mistakenly or to distinguish it from the many other commonwealths around the world.
It is the successor of the British Empire, that was largely dismantled after World War II, partly owing to the rise of independence movements in the then subject territories (most importantly in India under the influence of the famous pacifist Mohandas Gandhi) and partly owing to the British Government's straitened circumstances resulting from the cost of the war.
Queen Elizabeth II is the nominal head of the organization, but in practice it is served (since 1965) by a London-based Secretariat headed by a Secretary-General chosen by the heads of member governments for five years, presently (2000-2005) former New Zealand foreign minister Don McKinnon.
Membership is normally open to countries which accept the association's basic aims and which have a present or past constitutional link to the UK or to another Commonwealth member. 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 (League of Nations mandate of 1920-46 and United Nations Trusteeship arrangement of 1946-61).
One member of the present Commonwealth was never attached to the British Empire: Mozambique applied for and received membership in 1995, because every border-sharing neighbour of Mozambique was also a member, the post-civil-war government felt it was in the interest of the recovering nation to be included, and other members 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.
Burma (now Myanmar) (1948) and Ireland (1949) resolved upon independence as republics outside the Commonwealth despite having formerly been parts of the Empire. The issue of republic status within the Commonwealth was only resolved in the latter year (after Ireland's decision) when it was agreed that India should remain upon adopting her present republican constitution.
This decision, by which all members accepted the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth regardless of their domestic constitutional arrangements, is now considered the start of the modern Commonwealth, although the full practical independence within the Empire of the older settler-ruled Dominions had been recognised as early as 1926, and conferences of Empire prime ministers had taken place periodically since 1887.
Citizens of Commonwealth nations make up 30% of the world's population: 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, in contrast, has only 11,000 inhabitants.
The Commonwealth has long been distinctive as an international forum where highly developed economies (the UK, Canada, Australia, 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 apartheid South Africa in the 1980s led to a cooling of relations between Britain and African members.
However, with the mutual decline of interest in each other as former British colonies forge closer relationships with non-Commonwealth trading partners and close geographic neighbours, the Commonwealth's direct practical importance has declined.
It 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.
It is also useful as an international organisation that represents cultural and historical links between wealthy first-world countries and poorer developing nations with diverse social and religious backgrounds.
Fiji and Pakistan have had their membership suspended in recent years because of military coups removing democratic regimes. South Africa's membership was effectively suspended during the Apartheid era: South Africa actually withdrew of its own accord in 1961 before the suspension resolution was passed), but was reinstated upon the establishment of majority rule in 1994. Nigeria was suspended between 1995 and 1999. Pakistan had earlier left in 1972 in protest at Commonwealth recognition of breakaway Bangladesh, but rejoined in 1989.
Heads of state of the Commonwealth countries meet biennally at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This was to have been held in Brisbane, Australia in October 2001, but was postponed until March 2002 due to the uncertainty in international affairs engendered by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Commonwealth countries also share sporting and cultural links, notably including the sport of cricket. A multi-sport championship called the Commonwealth Games is held every four years: as well as the usual athletic disciplines the Games include sports popular throughout the Commonwealth such as bowls.
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).
- Antigua and Barbuda
- The Bahamas
- Brunei Darussalam
- Fiji Islands (currently suspended)
- The Gambia
- New Zealand
- Pakistan (currently suspended)
- Papua New Guinea
- Sierra Leone
- Solomon Islands
- South Africa
- Sri Lanka
- St Kitts and Nevis
- St Lucia
- St Vincent and The Grenadines
- United Republic of Tanzania
- Trinidad and Tobago
- United Kingdom
- http://www.thecommonwealth.org is the website of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
- http://www.commonwealth.org.uk/ The Commonwealth Institute, London.
- http://www.empiremuseum.co.uk/ British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, England.
- http://www.sas.ac.uk/commonwealthstudies/ University of London Institute of Commonwealth Studies.