Head of the Commonwealth H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, is the current 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 annexed to that of British monarchy. 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. Fifteen members of the Commonwealth, known as Commonwealth realms, recognise the Queen as their head of state. The majority of members, thirty-one, are republics, and a further five have monarchs of different royal houses.
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, represented by 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 the 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 pre-existing ‘Empire Day’ celebrations.
Objectives and activities
The instrument which sets out the Commonwealth’s objectives is 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 (which mostly concerned racism), 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 highly 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.
The Commonwealth comprises fifty-six of the world’s countries, 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 (149 million), the United Kingdom (61 million) and South Africa (49 million). Tuvalu is the smallest member, with only 12,000 people.
The land area of the Commonwealth nations is about 21% of the total world land area. The three largest Commonwealth nations by area are Canada at 10,000,000 km2 (3,900,000 sq mi), Australia at 7,700,000 km2 (2,970,000 sq mi), and India at 3,300,000 km2 (1,270,000 sq mi). The Commonwealth members have a combined gross domestic product (measured in purchasing power parity) of $10.6 trillion, 66% of which is accounted for by the four largest economies: India ($3.3 trillion), the United Kingdom ($2.3 trillion), Canada ($1.3 trillion), and Australia ($800 billion).
The status of ‘Member in Arrears’ is used to denote those that are in arrears in paying subscription dues to the Commonwealth. The status was originally known as ‘special membership’, but was renamed on the Committee on Commonwealth Membership’s recommendation. Currently, there is one Member in Arrears: Nauru. Nauru joined as a special member, but was a full member from 1 May 1999 to January 2006, when it reverted.
New members must ‘as a general rule’ have a direct constitutional link to an existing member. In most cases, the existing member is 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). There is only one member of the present Commonwealth that 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. Mozambique’s entry was controversial, leading to the Edinburgh Declaration and the current membership guidelines. At the Trinidad CHOGM in November 2009, Rwanda was – somewhat controversially – admitted to the Commonwealth and became its 54th member state.
At the Rwanda CHOGM in June 2022, Gabon and Togo were admitted to the Commonwealth and became its 55th and 56th member states.
Members with heads of state other than the British Sovereign
The issue of countries with constitutional structures not based on a shared Crown, but which wished to remain members of the Commonwealth, was resolved in April 1949 at a Commonwealth prime ministers’ meeting in London. Under this 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, 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. Following India’s precedent, other nations became republics, or constitutional monarchies with monarchs different from that of the United Kingdom, 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.
The criteria for membership of the Commonwealth have developed over time from a series of separate documents. The Statute of Westminster 1931, as the founding document of the organisation, laid out that membership required dominionhood. The 1949 London Declaration ended this, allowing republican and indigenous monarchies to be 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 requisite of 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 fourteen 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 fall 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, which remain the same today, 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 vis-à-vis Commonwealth membership. These requirements are undergoing review, and a report on potential amendment is to be presented to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2007. New members will not be admitted at the 2007 CHOGM, with 2009 set as the earliest date of entry.
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 a military coup by Pervez Musharraf. The Commonwealth’s longest suspension came to an end on 22 May 2004, with the readmittance of Pakistan, 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 Zimbabwe withdrew from the organisation in 2003.
Fiji, which was not a member of the Commonwealth between 1987 and 1997 as a result of a pair of coups d’état, has also been suspended twice, with the first suspension being imposed from 6 June 2000 to 20 December 2001 after another coup. Fiji was suspended once again, since 8 December 2006, following the most recent coup, this suspension only applying to membership on the Councils of the Commonwealth. After failing to meet a Commonwealth deadline for setting 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 program (with an exception for assistance in re-establishing democracy). It was also stated that Fiji would remain a member of the Commonwealth during its suspension, but would be excluded from emblematic representation by the secretariat.
Termination of membership
As membership is purely voluntary, member governments can choose at any time to leave the Commonwealth. Pakistan left in 1972 in protest at the Commonwealth’s recognition of breakaway Bangladesh, but rejoined in 1989. Zimbabwe left in 2003 when the Commonwealth heads of government refused to lift the country’s suspension on the grounds of alleged human rights violations and deliberate misgovernment.
Although heads of government have the power to suspend member states from active participation, there is no provision for the expulsion of members. Until 2007, Commonwealth countries 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 countries were to become republics, they would not have to go through this process. The Irish Free State left the Commonwealth when it declared itself a republic, on 18 April 1949, after passing the Republic of Ireland Act 1948; because it preceded India’s London Declaration, remaining in the Commonwealth was not an option.
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 same year.
The declaration of a republic in Fiji in 1987, after military coups designed to deny Indo-Fijians political power there, 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.
Contrary to the popular belief that the Commonwealth is a declining organisation, there are a number of countries lining up to apply for membership.
Rwanda (since 2003), Sudan, Algeria, Madagascar and Yemen have applied to join the Commonwealth, and there was some interest expressed by Israel (being formerly administered by the United Kingdom) and the Palestinian National Authority.
Potential eligible applicants could come from any of the remaining inhabited British overseas territories, Crown dependencies, Australian external territories and Associated States of New Zealand if any become fully independent. Many such jurisdictions are already directly represented within the Commonwealth, particularly through the Commonwealth Family.
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 (International Organisation of Francophone Countries), the Comunidad Iberoamericana de Naciones (Organization of Ibero-American States) and the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (Community of Portuguese Language Countries). The Arab League, an association similar to the Commonwealth, was founded in 1945 and whose members and observers (except observer state India) use Arabic as an official language.
Commonwealth countries share many links outside government, with over a hundred Commonwealth-wide non-governmental organisations, notably for sport, culture, education 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.
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 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 (as of December 2008) stands at 46 governments out of the 53 member countries. Associate Membership, which is open to associated states or overseas territories of member governments, has been granted to Gibraltar. The year 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.
The Foundation’s vision is of a Commonwealth where citizens are able to give voice to their aspirations, identify their own solutions and fulfil their role in society. It is a Commonwealth where citizens, individually and collectively, express themselves for the public good at local, national and international levels by facing global challenges, building strong communities and promoting the rights of all citizens. It is a Commonwealth where civil society organisations realise their full potential, engaging with both government and the private sector in the shared enterprise of transformation of nation-building and international cooperation.
The Commonwealth Foundation’s mission is to strengthen civil society organisations across the Commonwealth by promoting democracy, advancing sustainable development and fostering inter-cultural understanding.
A multi-sport championship called the Commonwealth Games is held every four years; the most recent having been held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006, and the next due to be held in New Delhi, India, in 2010. 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. Starting in 1930, 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 failure of other countries to enforce the Gleneagles Agreement.
Mostly due to their history of British rule, many Commonwealth nations possess 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, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, common law, and the use of British rather than American spelling conventions (see English in the Commonwealth of Nations). None of these is universal amongst, 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 ‘Commonwealth’ in character, including cricket, both codes of 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 provided a constant in their relationships, even as the Empire transformed into the Commonwealth: preserving close ties. 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, a number of other sporting competitions are organised on a Commonwealth basis, through championship tournaments such as the Commonwealth Judo Championships, Commonwealth Rowing Championships, Commonwealth Sailing Championships, and Commonwealth Shooting Championships. Boxing has long maintained Commonwealth titles, administered by the Commonwealth Boxing Council, for the best boxers in the Commonwealth.
The shared history of British presence has also 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 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 Man 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.