Commonwealth of Nations- Key facts & Brief Overview

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Commonwealth of nations or simply the commonwealth was previously known as the British Commonwealth of nations. It is a political alliance of 54 member states which were nearly all former territories of the British Empire. The organisation started during the first half of the 20th century, with the decolonisation of the British Empire.

The current organisation comprises member states who are free and equal. They acknowledge the British Monarch, in this case, Queen Elizabeth II as the symbolic head of this alliance of nations. These member states have no obligations towards each other but are tied due to their English historical backgrounds.

Let us look at the Commonwealth of Nations, 21 key facts and a brief overview.

1) Canada was the first independent nation within the British Empire. When Queen Elizabeth II addressed Canada on Dominion Day, 1959, she said that the confederation of Canada marks the beginning of a series of independent nations who will be known as the Commonwealth of nations.

A picture of Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II

2) Formalisation of the term ‘Commonwealth’

The Balfour Declaration issued at the 1926 Imperial Conference, stated and agreed that Britain and its dominions were equal in status and were united by their common loyalty to the crown. It was here that the term ‘Commonwealth’ was formally used to describe these nations.

3) Furthermore, in 1931, the aspects in the relationship between these nations were formalised by the ‘Statute of Westminster’, which specifically referred to them as the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’.

A picture of The signing of the Statute of Westminster
The signing of the Statute of Westminster

4) The end of World War II exhibited a significant decline of the British Empire. Most of the nations under the empire were now self-governed, a republic or independent. Through the London Declaration, the word British was dropped from the Commonwealth of nations.

A picture of the Prime Ministers of Commonwealth nations at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference
The Prime Ministers of various nations at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference, where the London Declaration was issued

5) India was the first to gain independence from the British Empire in 1947, subsequently, Pakistan followed India. The two then became members of the Commonwealth.

A piccture of India's independence
India’s independence day 1947

6) Burma (Myanmar) became independent in 1948 but refused membership.

A picture of Burma's Independence day
Burma (Myanmar) Independence day

7) Subsequently, India decided to become a republic, but under the existing regulations of the Commonwealth, it would have required its withdrawal from the membership. But following a meeting in London, in 1949, it was agreed that India would remain a member, on the condition that it accepted the British crown as “a symbol of free association”.

A picture of a newspaper clipping showing India is declared a republic

8) Other members who completely withdrew from the association were Ireland (1949), South Africa (1961) and Pakistan (1972). However, Pakistan rejoined its membership in 1949.

9) The second half of the 20th century saw a growth in membership as dependencies became sovereign.

10) Membership Criteria

Initially, the Commonwealth required that the member nation were a part of the dominion. This was scrapped during the London Declaration, which proclaimed that the members join only if they recognise the British Monarch as the Head of the Commonwealth.

The current requirements are that the member nations follow the Harare principles and be fully sovereign nations. Additionally, the monarch of the Commonwealth nations should be recognised as the ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ and the English language should be the means of communication during meetings. Moreover, the general wishes of the population should be respected as regards to the Commonwealth.

11) In 1995, Mozambique was the first country who gained membership of the Commonwealth even though it was never under the British Empire.

12) Most Commonwealth countries have similar constitutional histories, hence, they have a similar political system as well. Most of these nations practice common law. Additionally, most of them have the bicameral Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.

A picture of a courtroom

13) The Commonwealth Secretariat was established in 1965, this is the body that governs the Commonwealth, it oversees cooperation and facilitates consultation between the Commonwealth nations.

A picture of the Commonwealth Secretariat Headquarters in London
Commonwealth Secretariat Headquarters in London

14) The Commonwealth is different from other bodies, it has no constitutional laws. The nations are just bound together by common economical interests, shared traditions and experiences. However, they have no formal obligations towards each other

15) A Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is held every two years, during this meeting they take commonwealth actions which are based on correspondence and consultation between each member state. For example in 1991, Zimbabwe meeting, the alliance committed itself to human rights and democracy.

A picture of 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting
Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, 2013

16) Suspension of membership

In the past, many nations have been suspended from membership. It was mainly for abrogating their responsibility of governing with democracy. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meets regularly and checks for potential violations of the Harare Declaration.  Although these nations still remain members, they are not represented at the meeting.

17) Termination of membership

As the membership is purely on a voluntary basis, the member nations can choose to leave at any time.

18) The Singapore Declaration of 1971

The Singapore Declaration laid out the objectives and activities of the Commonwealth of nations. Here the organisation committed itself to World Peace. It became an institution that promoted democracy and individual liberty. Further advocating equality and eradicating racism. Additionally, it became an association fighting against poverty, ignorance and disease.

A picture of the Singapore Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting
1971, Singapore Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting

19) The current priorities of the association are to promote democracy and development.

20) The Commonwealth nations also share non-governmental associations which are cultural, sports, education, charity and law.

21) A notable Commonwealth event is the Commonwealth Games, which are held every 4 years. The games started in 1930, and until 1950 they were called the British Empire Games. This event is the association’s most visible activity.

A picture of the Commonwealth games
The commonwealth games

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