The modern Commonwealth celebrated its 60th anniversary on 26 April 2009.
The Commonwealth, previously the British Commonwealth, is an international organisation of fifty-three independent member states. Most of them were formerly part of the British Empire. They co-operate 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’s origins are in the Statute of Westminster of 1931. It is not a political union, but an intergovernmental organisation through which countries with diverse social, political and economic backgrounds hold equal status. Activities are carried out through the Commonwealth Secretariat, the permanent headquarters in London, headed by the Secretary-General; biennial Meetings between Commonwealth Heads of Government; and the Commonwealth Foundation, which facilitates activities of non-governmental organisations in the so-called ‘Commonwealth Family’, the Commonwealth NGOs. The symbol of this free association is the Head of the Commonwealth, which is a ceremonial position currently held by Queen Elizabeth II.
Elizabeth II is also the monarch, separately, of sixteen members of the Commonwealth, informally called the Commonwealth realms. As each realm is an independent kingdom, the Queen, as monarch, holds a distinct title for each, though, by a Meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in 1952, all include the style Head of the Commonwealth at the end; for example: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. Beyond the realms, the majority of the members of the Commonwealth have separate heads of state: thirty-two members are republics, and five members have distinct monarchs: the Sultan of Brunei; the King of Lesotho; the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (or King) of Malaysia; the King of Swaziland; and the King of Tonga.
Marlborough House, in London, is the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat, which is the main intergovernmental institution of the Commonwealth.
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.
Based in London, 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). The first Secretary-General was Arnold Smith of Canada (1965–75), followed by Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana (1975–90).
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM)
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.