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Commonwealth of Nations

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Commonwealth of Nations
   Current members  Antigua and Barbuda Australia Bahamas Bangladesh Barbados Belize Botswana Brunei Cameroon Canada Cyprus Dominica Gambia Ghana Grenada Guyana India Jamaica Kenya Kiribati Lesotho Malawi Malaysia Maldives Malta Mauritius Mozambique Namibia Nauru New Zealand Nigeria Pakistan Papua New Guinea Rwanda St. Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia St. Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Solomon Islands South Africa Sri Lanka Swaziland Tanzania Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tuvalu Uganda United Kingdom Vanuatu Zambia        Dependent territories of members  ;Territories of Australia : Ashmore and Cartier Islands : Australian Antarctic Territory : Christmas Island : Cocos (Keeling) Islands : Coral Sea Islands : Heard Island and McDonald Islands : Norfolk Island  ;British Overseas Territories : Anguilla : Cayman Islands : Gibraltar : Montserrat : Pitcairn Islands : Turks and Caicos Islands : Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha : South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands : Bermuda : British Antarctic Territory : British Indian Ocean Territory : British Virgin Islands : Falkland Islands  ;Sovereign Base Areas : Akrotiri and Dhekelia  ;Crown dependencies : Guernsey : Jersey : Isle of Man  ;Free association with New Zealand : Cook Islands : Niue  ;Territories of New Zealand : Tokelau : Ross Dependency           Suspended members Fiji        Former members Ireland  Zimbabwe
Headquarters Marlborough House
United Kingdom London, UK
Official language English
 -  Head of the Commonwealth Queen Elizabeth II
(since 6 February 1952)
 -  Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma
(since 1 April 2008)
 -  Chairperson-in-Office Julia Gillard
(since 28 October 2011)
 -  Balfour Declaration 18 November 1926 
 -  Statute of Westminster 11 December 1931 
 -  London Declaration 28 April 1949 
 -  Total 31,462,574 km2
12,147,768 sq mi 
 -  2013 estimate 2.5 billion
 -  Density 61.09/km2
158.2/sq mi

The Commonwealth of Nations, normally referred to as the Commonwealth and formerly known as the British Commonwealth, is an intergovernmental organisation of 54 independent member states. All members except Mozambique and Rwanda were part of the British Empire, out of which the Commonwealth developed.

The member states cooperate within a framework of common values and goals, as outlined in the Singapore Declaration. These include the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace. The Commonwealth is not a political union, but an intergovernmental organisation in which countries with diverse social, political and economic backgrounds are regarded as equal in status. Alongside shared values, Commonwealth nations share strong trade links; trade with another Commonwealth member has been shown to be a third to a half more than with a non-member.

Activities of the Commonwealth are carried out through the permanent Commonwealth Secretariat, headed by the secretary-general, and biennial meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government. The symbol of their free association is the Head of the Commonwealth, currently held by Queen Elizabeth II. Elizabeth II is also monarch, separately and independently, of 16 Commonwealth members, which are known as the " Commonwealth realms".

The Commonwealth is a forum for a number of non-governmental organisations, collectively known as the Commonwealth Family, which are fostered through the intergovernmental Commonwealth Foundation. The Commonwealth Games, the Commonwealth's most visible activity, are a product of one of these organisations. These organisations strengthen the shared culture of the Commonwealth, which extends through common sports, literary heritage, and political and legal practices. Reflecting this, diplomatic missions between Commonwealth countries are designated as high commissions rather than embassies.



The prime ministers of five members of the Commonwealth at the 1944 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

In 1884, while visiting Australia, Lord Rosebery described the changing British Empire, as some of its colonies became more independent, as a "Commonwealth of Nations". Conferences of British and colonial prime ministers occurred periodically from the first one in 1887, leading to the creation of the Imperial Conferences in 1911. The Commonwealth developed from the Imperial Conferences. A specific proposal was presented by Jan Christiaan Smuts in 1917 when he coined the term "the British Commonwealth of Nations" and envisioned the "future constitutional relations and readjustments in essence" at the all-important Versailles Conference of 1919 by delegates from the dominions as well as Britain. The term first received imperial statutory recognition in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, when the term "British Commonwealth of Nations" was substituted for "British Empire" in the wording of the oath taken by members of parliament of the Irish Free State.

In the Balfour Declaration at the 1926 Imperial Conference, Britain 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". These aspects to the relationship were formalised by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The statute applied to Canada without the need for ratification, but Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland had to ratify the statute for it to take effect. Newfoundland never did, as on 16 February 1934, with the consent of its parliament, the Government of Newfoundland voluntarily ended, and governance reverted to direct control from London. Newfoundland later joined Canada as its tenth province in 1949. Australia and New Zealand ratified the Statute in 1942 and 1947 respectively.

Remaining members gain independence

After World War II ended, the British Empire was gradually dismantled to the 14 British overseas territories still held by the United Kingdom. In April 1949, following the London Declaration, the word "British" was dropped from the title of the Commonwealth to reflect its changing nature. Burma (also known as Myanmar, 1948) and Aden (1967) are the only states that were British colonies at the time of the war not to have joined the Commonwealth upon independence. Former British protectorates and mandates that did not become members of the Commonwealth are Egypt (independent in 1922), Iraq (1932), Transjordan (1946), British Palestine (part of which became the state of Israel in 1948), Sudan (1956), British Somaliland (which united with the former Italian Somaliland in 1960 to form Somalia), Kuwait (1961), Bahrain (1971), Oman (1971), Qatar (1971), and the United Arab Emirates (1971).

Members with heads of state other than the Sovereign

The issue of countries with constitutional structures not based on a shared Crown but that wanted to remain members of the Commonwealth came to a head in 1948 with passage of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, in which Ireland renounced the sovereignty of the Crown and thus left the Commonwealth (however, the Statute of Westminster 1931 was never ratified by Ireland, and the Commonwealth considers that the Republic of Ireland was never a member of it). The Ireland Act 1949 passed by the Parliament of Westminster offered citizens of the Republic of Ireland a status similar to that of citizens of the Commonwealth in UK law. The issue was resolved in April 1949 at a Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting in London. Under the London Declaration, India agreed that, when it became a republic in January 1950, it would accept the British Sovereign as a "symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth". Upon hearing this, King George VI told the Indian politician Krishna Menon: "So, I've become 'as such'".

The other Commonwealth countries 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. Following India's precedent, other nations became republics, or constitutional monarchies with their own monarchs, while some countries retained the same monarch as the United Kingdom, but their monarchies developed differently and soon became fully independent of the British monarchy. The monarch of each Commonwealth realm, whilst the same person, is regarded as a separate legal personality for each realm.

New Commonwealth

As the Commonwealth grew, Britain and the pre-1945 dominions became informally known as the "Old Commonwealth", and planners in the interwar period, like Lord Davies, who had also taken "a prominent part in building up the League of Nations Union" in the United Kingdom, in 1932 founded the New Commonwealth Movement, of which Winston Churchill was the president. The New Commonwealth was a society aimed at creation of an international air force to be the arm of the League of Nations, to allow nations to disarm and safeguard the peace. Some of these ideas were reflected in the United Nations Charter, drafted in Dumbarton Oaks (21 August to 7 October 1944) and San Francisco (25 April to 26 June 1945).

The term "New Commonwealth" has also sometimes been used in the United Kingdom (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) to refer to recently decolonised countries, which are predominantly non-white and developing. It was often used in debates about immigration from these countries.

Crisis over human rights and democracy

In recent years, the Commonwealth has been accused of not being vocal enough on its core values. Allegations of a leaked memo from the Secretary General instructing staff not to speak out on human rights were published in October 2010.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2011 considered a report by an Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group panel which asserted that the organisation had lost its relevance and was decaying due to the lack of a mechanism to censure member countries when they violated human rights or democratic norms. The panel made 106 "urgent" recommendations including the adoption of a Charter of the Commonwealth, the creation of a new commissioner on the rule of law, democracy and human rights to track persistent human rights abuses and allegations of political repression by Commonwealth member states, recommendations for the repeal of laws against homosexuality in 41 Commonwealth states and a ban on " forced marriage." The failure to release the report, or accept its recommendations for reforms in the area of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, was decried as a "disgrace" by former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a member of the EPG, who told a press conference: "The Commonwealth faces a very significant problem. It's not a problem of hostility or antagonism, it's more of a problem of indifference. Its purpose is being questioned, its relevance is being questioned and part of that is because its commitment to enforce the values for which it stands is becoming ambiguous in the eyes of many member states. The Commonwealth is not a private club of the governments or the secretariat. It belongs to the people of the Commonwealth."

In the end, two-thirds of the EPG's 106 urgently recommended reforms were referred to study groups, an act described by one EPG member as having them "kicked into the long grass". There was no agreement to create the recommended position of human rights commissioner, instead a ministerial management group was empowered with enforcement: the group includes alleged human rights offenders. It was agreed to develop a charter of values for the Commonwealth without any decision on how compliance with its principles would be enforced.

The result of the effort was that a new Charter of the Commonwealth was signed by Queen Elizabeth on 11 March 2013 at Marlborough House, which opposes "all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds".


Objectives and activities

The Commonwealth's objectives were first outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, which committed the Commonwealth to the institution of world peace; promotion of representative democracy and individual liberty; the pursuit of equality and opposition to racism; the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease; and free trade. To these were added opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender by the Lusaka Declaration of 1979, and environmental sustainability by the Langkawi Declaration of 1989. These objectives were reinforced by the Harare Declaration in 1991.

The Commonwealth's current highest-priority aims are on the promotion of democracy and development, as outlined in the 2003 Aso Rock Declaration, which built on those in Singapore and Harare and clarified their terms of reference, stating, "We are committed to democracy, good governance, human rights, gender equality, and a more equitable sharing of the benefits of globalisation." The Commonwealth website lists its areas of work as: Democracy, Economics, Education, Gender, Governance, Human Rights, Law, Small States, Sport, Sustainability, and Youth.

The Commonwealth has long been distinctive as an international forum where developed economies (such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and 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 late 1960s and 1970s and over apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s led to a cooling of relations between the United Kingdom and African members.

Through a separate voluntary fund, Commonwealth governments support the Commonwealth Youth Programme, a division of the Secretariat with offices in Gulu (Uganda), Lusaka (Zambia), Chandigarh (India), Georgetown (Guyana) and Honiara (Solomon Islands).

Public support

A poll in seven member countries on the occasion of 60th anniversary of the founding of the Commonwealth in 2009 commissioned by the Royal Commonwealth Society found that most people in all countries were largely ignorant of the Commonwealth's functions and indifferent towards its future. In Canada one third of respondends said they would not care if Canada left the Commonwealth, half could not describe what it does, and Canadians were four times more likely to support closer ties to the United States. Support was also weak in other wealthier Commonwealth realms much stronger in poorer Commonwealth republics. Nearly one fifth of Australian respondents said they would be "delighted" or "pleased" if their country left the Commonwealth.


Head of the Commonwealth

Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth.

Under the formula of the London Declaration, Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth, a title that is currently individually shared with that of Commonwealth realms. However, when the monarch dies the successor to the crown does not automatically become Head of the Commonwealth. The position is symbolic, representing the free association of independent members. Sixteen members of the Commonwealth, known as Commonwealth realms, recognise the Queen as their head of state. The majority of members (33) are republics, and five have monarchs of different royal houses.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

The main decision-making forum of the organisation is the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where Commonwealth Heads of Government, including (amongst others) Prime Ministers and Presidents, assemble for several days to discuss matters of mutual interest. CHOGM is the successor to the Meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers and earlier Imperial Conferences and Colonial Conferences dating back to 1887. There are also regular meetings of finance ministers, law ministers, health ministers, etc. Members in Arrears, as Special Members before them, are not invited to send representatives to either ministerial meetings or CHOGMs.

The head of government hosting the Head of Government Meeting is called the Commonwealth Chairperson-in-Office, and retains the position until the following CHOGM. After the most recent CHOGM, in Perth in October 2011, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard became Chairperson-in-Office.

Commonwealth Secretariat

Marlborough House, London, is the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth's principal intergovernmental institution.

The Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965, is the main intergovernmental agency of the Commonwealth, facilitating consultation and cooperation among member governments and countries. It is responsible to member governments collectively. The Commonwealth of Nations is represented in the United Nations General Assembly by the Secretariat, as an observer.

The Secretariat organises Commonwealth summits, meetings of ministers, consultative meetings and technical discussions; it assists policy development and provides policy advice, and facilitates multilateral communication among the member governments. It also provides technical assistance to help governments in the social and economic development of their countries and in support of the Commonwealth's fundamental political values.

The Secretariat is headed by the Commonwealth secretary-general who is elected by Commonwealth heads of government for no more than two four-year terms. The secretary-general and two deputy secretaries-general direct the divisions of the Secretariat. The present secretary-general is Kamalesh Sharma, from India, who took office on 1 April 2008, succeeding Don McKinnon of New Zealand (2000–2008), and was re-elected in 2011 to his second term in 2012. The first secretary-general was Arnold Smith of Canada (1965–75), followed by Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana (1975–90) and Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria (1990–99).


Membership criteria

The criteria for membership of the Commonwealth of Nations have developed over time from a series of separate documents. The Statute of Westminster 1931, as a fundamental founding document of the organisation, laid out that membership required dominionhood. The 1949 London Declaration ended this, allowing republican and indigenous monarchic members on the condition that they recognised the British monarch as the " Head of the Commonwealth". In the wake of the wave of decolonisation in the 1960s, these constitutional principles were augmented by political, economic, and social principles. The first of these was set out in 1961, when it was decided that respect for racial equality would be a requirement for membership, leading directly to the withdrawal of South Africa's re-application (which they were required to make under the formula of the London Declaration upon becoming a republic). The 14 points of the 1971 Singapore Declaration dedicated all members to the principles of world peace, liberty, human rights, equality, and free trade.

These criteria were unenforceable for two decades, until, in 1991, the Harare Declaration was issued, dedicating the leaders to applying the Singapore principles to the completion of decolonisation, the end of the Cold War, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. The mechanisms by which these principles would be applied were created, and the manner clarified, by the 1995 Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme, which created the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which has the power to rule on whether members meet the requirements for membership under the Harare Declaration. Also in 1995, an Inter-Governmental Group was created to finalise and codify the full requirements for membership. Upon reporting in 1997, as adopted under the Edinburgh Declaration, the Inter-Governmental Group ruled that any future members would have to have a direct constitutional link with an existing member.

In addition to this new rule, the former rules were consolidated into a single document. These requirements are that members must accept and comply with the Harare principles, be fully sovereign states, recognise the monarch of the Commonwealth realms as the Head of the Commonwealth, accept the English language as the means of Commonwealth communication, and respect the wishes of the general population with regard to Commonwealth membership. These requirements had undergone review, and a report on potential amendments was presented by the Committee on Commonwealth Membership at the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. New members were not admitted at this meeting, though applications for admission were considered at the 2009 CHOGM.

New members must "as a general rule" have a direct constitutional link to an existing member. In most cases, this is due to being a former colony of the United Kingdom, but some have links to other countries, either exclusively or more directly (e.g. Samoa to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea to Australia, and Namibia to South Africa). The first member to be admitted without having any constitutional link to the British Empire or a Commonwealth member was Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, in 1995 following its first democratic elections and South Africa's re-admission in 1994. Mozambique's controversial entry led to the Edinburgh Declaration and the current membership guidelines. In 2009, Rwanda became the second Commonwealth member admitted not to have any such constitutional links. It was a Belgian trust territory that had been a German colony until World War I. Consideration for its admission was considered an "exceptional circumstance" by the Commonwealth Secretariat.


Flags of the members of the Commonwealth in Horse Guards Road, next to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.
The Commonwealth flag flies at the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa.

The Commonwealth comprises 54 countries (including one currently suspended member), across all six inhabited continents. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, almost a third of the world population, of which 1.17 billion live in India and 94% live in Asia and Africa combined. After India, the next-largest Commonwealth countries by population are Pakistan (176 million), Bangladesh (156 million), Nigeria (154 million), the United Kingdom (63 million) and South Africa (49 million). Tuvalu is the smallest member, with about 10,000 people.

The land area of the Commonwealth nations is about 31,500,000 km2 (12,200,000 sq mi), or about 21% of the total world land area. The three largest Commonwealth nations by area are Canada at 9,984,670 km2 (3,855,100 sq mi), Australia at 7,617,930 km2 (2,941,300 sq mi), and India at 3,287,263 km2 (1,269,219 sq mi). The Commonwealth members have a combined gross domestic product of over $10 trillion, 65% of which is accounted for by the four largest economies: the United Kingdom ($2.4 trillion), India ($1.9 trillion), Canada ($1.8 trillion) and Australia ($1.5 trillion).

The status of "Member in Arrears" is used to denote those that are in arrears in paying subscription dues. The status was originally known as " special membership", but was renamed on the Committee on Commonwealth Membership's recommendation. There are currently no Members in Arrears. The most recent Member in Arrears, Nauru, returned to full membership in June 2011. Nauru has alternated between special and full membership since joining the Commonwealth, depending on its financial situation.


South Sudan has applied to join the Commonwealth.

Andrew Roberts, the British author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, has written: "We should think carefully about what the Commonwealth means before we allow just anyone to join. It should mean a connection with the British Crown however historical, and an appreciation of the political culture of the English-speaking peoples. And that seems to be lacking in every country [that would like to join] apart from Israel." In 2006, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said: "Many people have assumed an interest from Israel, but there has been no formal approach."

Other eligible applicants could be any of the remaining inhabited British overseas territories, Crown dependencies, Australian external territories and Associated States of New Zealand if they become fully independent. Many such jurisdictions are already directly represented within the Commonwealth, particularly through the Commonwealth Family. All three Crown dependencies regard the existing situation as unsatisfactory and have lobbied for change. The States of Jersey have called on the UK Foreign Secretary to request that the Commonwealth Heads of Government "consider granting associate membership to Jersey and the other Crown Dependencies as well as any other territories at a similarly advanced stage of autonomy". Jersey has proposed that it be accorded "self-representation in all Commonwealth meetings; full participation in debates and procedures, with a right to speak where relevant and the opportunity to enter into discussions with those who are full members; and no right to vote in the Ministerial or Heads of Government meetings, which is reserved for full members". The States of Guernsey and the Government of the Isle of Man have made calls of a similar nature for a more integrated relationship with the Commonwealth, including more direct representation and enhanced participation in Commonwealth organisations and meetings, including Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. The Chief Minister of the Isle of Man has said: "A closer connection with the Commonwealth itself would be a welcome further development of the Island’s international relationships"

At the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956, in the face of colonial unrest and international tensions, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet proposed to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden that their two countries be joined in a "union". When that proposal was turned down, Mollet suggested that France be allowed to join the Commonwealth, with "a common citizenship arrangement on the Irish basis."

In 1957, after both proposals had been rejected, France signed the Treaty of Rome with West Germany and the other founding nations of the Common Market, later to become the European Union, which the United Kingdom joined in 1973. Malta and Cyprus, also Commonwealth members, joined in 2004.


In recent years, the Commonwealth has suspended several members "from the Councils of the Commonwealth" for "serious or persistent violations" of the Harare Declaration, particularly in abrogating their responsibility to have democratic government. This is done by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which meets regularly to address potential breaches of the Harare Declaration. Suspended members are not represented at meetings of Commonwealth leaders and ministers, although they remain members of the organisation. Currently, there is one suspended member, Fiji.

Nigeria was suspended between 11 November 1995 and 29 May 1999, following its execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the eve of the 1995 CHOGM. Pakistan was the second country to be suspended, on 18 October 1999, following the military coup by Pervez Musharraf. The Commonwealth's longest suspension came to an end on 22 May 2004, when Pakistan's suspension was lifted following the restoration of the country's constitution. Pakistan was suspended for a second time, far more briefly, for six months from 22 November 2007, when Musharraf called a state of emergency. Zimbabwe was suspended in 2002 over concerns with the electoral and land reform policies of Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government, before it withdrew from the organisation in 2003.

Fiji, which was not a member of the Commonwealth between 1987 and 1997 as a result of two coups d'état, has been suspended twice, with the first imposed from 6 June 2000 to 20 December 2001 after another coup. Fiji has been suspended again since 8 December 2006, following the most recent coup. At first, the suspension applied only to membership on the Councils of the Commonwealth. After failing to meet a Commonwealth deadline for setting a date for national elections by 2010, Fiji was "fully suspended" on 1 September 2009. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, confirmed that full suspension meant that Fiji would be excluded from Commonwealth meetings, sporting events and the technical assistance programme (with an exception for assistance in re-establishing democracy). Sharma also stated that Fiji would remain a member of the Commonwealth during its suspension, but would be excluded from emblematic representation by the secretariat.

Most recently, international pressure has been mounting to suspend Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth and to change the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) from Sri Lanka to another member country, citing grave human rights violations by the host country. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper has threatened to boycott the event and the UK Foreign Affairs Committee has also called upon Prime Minister David Cameron not to attend.

Termination of membership

As membership is purely voluntary, member governments can choose at any time to leave the Commonwealth. Pakistan left on 30 January 1972 in protest at the Commonwealth's recognition of breakaway Bangladesh, but rejoined on 2 August 1989. Zimbabwe's membership was suspended in 2002 on the grounds of alleged human rights violations and deliberate misgovernment, and Zimbabwe's government terminated its membership in 2003.

Although heads of government have the power to suspend member states from active participation, the Commonwealth has no provision for the expulsion of members. Until 2007, Commonwealth realms that became republics automatically ceased to be members, until (like India in 1950) they obtained the permission of other members to remain in the organisation. This policy has been changed, so if any current Commonwealth realms were to become republics, they would not have to go through this process. Ireland left the Commonwealth when it declared itself a republic, on 18 April 1949, after enacting the Republic of Ireland Act 1948.

South Africa was prevented from continuing as a member after it became a republic in 1961, due to 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 Meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers that any such application would be rejected. South Africa was re-admitted to the Commonwealth in 1994, following the end of apartheid earlier that year.

The declaration of a republic in Fiji in 1987, after military coups designed to deny Indo-Fijians political power, was not accompanied by an application to remain. Commonwealth membership was held to have lapsed until 1997, after discriminatory provisions in the republican constitution were repealed and reapplication for membership made.

The Transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 ended the colony's ties to the Commonwealth through the United Kingdom. The government of Hong Kong, as a special administrative region of China, did not pursue membership. Hong Kong SAR has nevertheless continued to participate in some of the organisations of the Commonwealth family, such as the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Commonwealth Association of Legislative Counsel.

Commonwealth Family

Commonwealth countries share many links outside government, with over a hundred Commonwealth-wide non-governmental organisations, notably for sport, culture, education, law and charity. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is an important vehicle for academic links, particularly through 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.

Commonwealth Foundation

The Commonwealth Foundation is an intergovernmental organisation, resourced by and reporting to Commonwealth governments, and guided by Commonwealth values and priorities. Its mandate is to strengthen civil society in the achievement of Commonwealth priorities: democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and gender equality, poverty eradication and sustainable, people-centred and sustainable development, and to promote arts and culture.

The Foundation was established by the Heads of Government in 1965. Admittance is open to all members of the Commonwealth and in December 2008 stood at 46 out of the 54 member countries. Associate Membership, which is open to associated states or overseas territories of member governments, has been granted to Gibraltar. 2005 saw celebrations for the Foundation's 40th Anniversary. The Foundation is headquartered in Marlborough House, Pall Mall, London. Regular liaison and cooperation between the Secretariat and the Foundation is in place.

The Foundation continues to serve the broad purposes for which it was established as written in the Memorandum of Understanding.

Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Games are the third-largest multi-sport event in the world, bringing together globally popular sports and peculiarly "Commonwealth" sports, such as rugby sevens, shown here at the 2006 Games.

The Commonwealth Games, a multi-sport event, is held every four years; the 2010 Commonwealth Games were held in New Delhi, India in 2010, and the next in Glasgow, Scotland in 2014. As well as the usual athletic disciplines, as at the Summer Olympic Games, the games include sports particularly popular in the Commonwealth, such as bowls, netball, and rugby sevens. Started in 1930 as the Empire Games, the games were founded on the Olympic model of amateurism, but were deliberately designed to be, as they are still renowned for being "the Friendly Games", with the goal of promoting relations between Commonwealth countries and celebrating their shared sporting and cultural heritage.

The Games are the Commonwealth's most visible activity, and interest in the operation of the Commonwealth increases greatly when the Games are held. There is controversy over whether the Games – and sport generally – should be involved in the Commonwealth's wider political concerns. The 1977 Gleneagles Agreement was signed to commit Commonwealth countries to combat apartheid through discouraging sporting contact with South Africa (which was not then a member), whilst the 1986 Games were boycotted by most African, Asian, and Caribbean countries for the failure of other countries to enforce the Gleneagles Agreement.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission serves to commemorate 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead and maintains 2,500 war cemeteries around the world, including this one in Gallipoli.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is responsible for maintaining the war graves of 1.7 million service personnel that died in the First and Second World Wars fighting for Commonwealth member states. Founded in 1917, the Commission has constructed 2,500 war cemeteries, and maintains individual graves at another 20,000 sites around the world. The vast majority of the latter are civilian cemeteries in Great Britain. In 1998, the CWGC made the records of its buried online to facilitate easier searching.

Commonwealth war cemeteries often feature similar horticulture and architecture, with larger cemeteries being home to a Cross of Sacrifice and Stone of Remembrance. The CWGC is notable for marking the graves identically, regardless of the rank, country of origin, race, or religion of the buried. It is funded by voluntary agreement by six Commonwealth members, in proportion to the nationality of the casualties in the graves maintained, with three-quarters of the funding coming from Britain.

Commonwealth of Learning

The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is an intergovernmental organisation created by the Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. COL is helping developing nations improve access to quality education and training.

Commonwealth Business Council

The Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) was formed at 1997 CHOGM. 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 co-operation between business and government, concentrating efforts on these specific areas enhancing trade, facilitating ICT for Development, mobilising investment, promoting corporate citizenship, and public private partnerships. The CBC has a dedicated team, CBC Technologies, based in London and is focused on the international technology and global services industry throughout the Commonwealth.


Mostly due to their history of British rule, many Commonwealth nations possess traditions and customs that are elements of a shared Commonwealth culture. Examples include common sports such as cricket and rugby, driving on the left, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, common law, widespread use of the English language, designation of English as an official language, military and naval ranks, and the use of British rather than American spelling conventions (see English in the Commonwealth of Nations). None of these is universal among, nor exclusive to, the Commonwealth, but are more commonly found within its members than elsewhere.


Due to the legacy of British colonial rule, many Commonwealth nations play similar sports that are considered quintessentially "British" in character, including cricket, rugby, and netball. This has led to the development of friendly national rivalries between the main sporting nations that have often defined their relations with each another. Indeed, said rivalries preserved close ties by providing a constant in international relationships, even as the Empire transformed into the Commonwealth. Externally, playing these sports is seen to be a sign of sharing a certain Commonwealth culture; the adoption of cricket at schools in Rwanda is seen as symbolic of the country's move towards Commonwealth membership.

Besides the Commonwealth Games, other sporting competitions are organised on a Commonwealth basis, through championship tournaments such as the Commonwealth Judo Championships, Commonwealth Rowing Championships, Commonwealth Sailing Championships, Commonwealth Shooting Championships and Commonwealth Pool Lifesaving Championships. The Commonwealth Boxing Council has long maintained Commonwealth titles for the best boxers in the Commonwealth.


The shared history of British presence has produced a substantial body of writing in many languages, known as Commonwealth literature. There is an Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, with nine chapters worldwide and an international conference is held every three years.

In 1987, the Commonwealth Foundation established the annual 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". Prizes are awarded for the best book and best first book in the Commonwealth, as well as regional prizes for the best book and best first book from each of four regions. Although not officially affiliated with the Commonwealth, the prestigious Man Booker Prize is awarded annually to an author from a Commonwealth country or the two former members, Ireland and Zimbabwe. This honour is one of the highest in literature.

Political system

Due to their shared constitutional histories, most countries in the Commonwealth have similar legal and political systems. The Commonwealth requires its members to be functioning democracies that respect human rights and the rule of law. Half of Commonwealth countries have the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association facilitates cooperation between legislatures across the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum promotes good governance amongst local government officials.

Most Commonwealth members use common law, modelled on English law. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the supreme court of 14 Commonwealth members.


The Commonwealth has adopted a number of symbols that represent the association of its members. Elizabeth II holds the position of Head of the Commonwealth as a symbol of the Commonwealth's free association, dating back to the London Declaration, issued in 28 April 1949. The English language is recognised as a symbol of the members' heritage; as well as being considered a symbol of the Commonwealth, recognition of it as "the means of Commonwealth communication" is a prerequisite for Commonwealth membership.

The flag of the Commonwealth consists of the symbol of the Commonwealth Secretariat, a gold globe surrounded by emanating "rays", on a dark blue field; it was designed for the second CHOGM in 1973, and officially adopted on 26 March 1976. 1976 also saw the organisation agree to a common date on which to commemorate Commonwealth Day, the second Monday in March, having developed separately on different dates from Empire Day celebrations.

Commonwealth citizenship

In recognition of their shared heritage and culture, Commonwealth countries are not considered to be "foreign" to each other. When engaging bilaterally with one another, Commonwealth governments exchange High Commissioners instead of ambassadors. Between two Commonwealth realms, they represent the Head of Government rather than the Head of State. Outside of bilateralism, however, some Commonwealth states do consider other members to be foreign for certain purposes. For example, the High Court of Australia ruled, in Sue v Hill, that the United Kingdom is a foreign power for the purposes of Section 44 of the Constitution of Australia.

In addition, some members treat resident citizens of other Commonwealth countries preferentially to citizens of non-Commonwealth countries. Britain and several others, mostly in the Caribbean, grant the right to vote to Commonwealth citizens who reside in those countries. Some states, such as Canada and New Zealand, have abolished such preferences. In non-Commonwealth countries in which their own country is not represented, Commonwealth citizens may seek consular assistance at the British embassy.

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