The Commonwealth of Nations, more commonly known simply as the Commonwealth, is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states, including Britain and former British territories and existing territories of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Any former British territory may seek Commonwealth membership, which is granted by unanimous consent of the members (see table A, Members of the Commonwealth of Nations).
Commonwealth member countries recognize the British monarch as the symbolic head of the association. In member nations in which the British monarch serves as the head of state, she or he is represented by an appointed governor general, who is independent of the British government. In other Commonwealth nations, the monarch is represented by a high commissioner who has the status of an ambassador. Member states meet regularly to discuss issues, coordinate mutual economic and technical assistance, and formulate proposals regarding international economic affairs.
The Commonwealth of Nations is a twentieth-century creation, but its origins go back to events in 1867. In that year, the British Parliament passed the British North American Act, creating the self-governing Dominion of Canada. Canada was the first British colony to gain self-government, and from that time on Britain began to redefine its relationship with its colonies. Australia became a dominion in 1900, New Zealand in 1907, and the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa dispatched troops to aid in the British war effort in World War I. They also participated in the postwar peace conference and in the creation of the League of Nations. Such actions led Britain to acknowledge these countries more as equals than as former colonies.
In 1926 an Imperial Conference of Commonwealth members adopted the Balfour Formula on the status of the dominions. The conference defined the dominions and Britain as "autonomous communities with the Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." The formula continued, "Every self-governing member of the Empire is now the master of its destiny. In fact, if not always in form, it is subject to no compulsion whatsoever."
The British government codified these basic principles of equal status and free association in 1931 in the Statute of Westminster, which has been characterized as the "Magna Carta of the Commonwealth." The statute also recognized the full legislative autonomy of the dominions and offered all former colonies the right to secede from the Commonwealth.
The Ottawa Imperial Conference of 1932 added an economic dimension to the Commonwealth by creating the Commonwealth Preference, a system of preferential tariffs that applied to trade between Britain and the other Commonwealth members. Under this system, Britain imported goods from other Commonwealth countries without imposing any tariffs. Commonwealth members were encouraged to negotiate similar trade agreements with one another. For the next decade and a half, the Commonwealth in essence functioned as an economic bloc vis-à-vis the rest of the world. However, following World War II, as world and British trade policies were liberalized, the bloc gradually disintegrated. The Commonwealth Preference was finally terminated in 1977 as a condition of Britain's entrance into the European Economic Community (EEC). Nevertheless, Commonwealth nations have been linked to the EEC through the Lomé Convention (see Glossary), which offers former colonies of EEC members in Africa, the Pacific, and the Caribbean preferential access to EEC markets and economic assistance. The Lomé Convention is updated every five years.
A new Commonwealth gradually emerged after World War II, reflecting the progress of decolonization and the needs of new members. In the process, the Commonwealth became both more decentralized and more concerned with economic and social needs. In 1947 Britain granted complete independence to India and Pakistan, and in 1948 Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) and Burma (now Myanmar) gained independence. Burma did not join the Commonwealth, but the other three became independent Commonwealth members. In deference to India, a self-declared republic, the Commonwealth dropped the requirement of formal allegiance to the crown. In 1949 the Irish Republic seceded. In 1961 South Africa left the Commonwealth because its racial policies differed from the values of all other Commonwealth members.
During the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of British colonies achieved independence and joined the expanded Commonwealth, including most ex-colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. Some former British colonies did not join, however; these included Iraq, Transjordan (now Jordan), British Somaliland (now Somalia), Southern Cameroons (now Cameroon), the Maldive Islands, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). Pakistan left in 1972, after Britain and other members recognized Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, but in 1987 rejoined the Commonwealth (see table A, this appendix).
Although the Statute of Westminster affirms the principles of free association and equal status, the contemporary Commonwealth has no written charter or formal treaty. Instead, its governing features are found in a few basic procedures, its periodic declarations of principle, and an organization designed for consultations and mutual assistance. This framework is both flexible and adaptable, and a major reason why the Commonwealth has survived major changes in membership and member interests.
Two central procedures govern the Commonwealth--its process of making decisions by consensus and its biennial Heads of Government Meetings. The latter are held in odd-numbered years and in different cities and regions within the Commonwealth. In alternate years, senior officials hold policy-review meetings; finance ministers meet annually; other meetings are held as appropriate.
Over time the Commonwealth has become more oriented toward its less-developed members. Major declarations of principle reflect this trend. The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, adopted at the 1971 Singapore meeting, affirmed the members' belief "in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, color, creed, or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic processes in framing the society in which they live." The declaration also opposed all forms of colonial domination and racial oppression.
The 1977 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, issued an Agreement on Apartheid in Sport, reaffirming opposition to apartheid, but allowing each member to decide whether to participate in sporting events with South Africa. The 1979 conference in Lusaka, Zambia, issued both an important framework for a peaceful settlement of Southern Rhodesia's transition to an independent Zimbabwe under black majority rule and a strong Commonwealth declaration condemning racism. Members also adopted the 1981 Melbourne Declaration on relations between the developed and developing nations; the 1983 New Delhi Statement on Economic Action; and the 1983 Goa Declaration on International Security.
The October 1985 meeting in Nassau, the Bahamas, passed resolutions calling for cooperation in fighting international terrorism and drug trafficking, bans on nuclear testing, and prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. As part of the Commonwealth's continuing condemnation of South Africa's racial policies, it also appointed a Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons (Comgep). The Comgep was tasked to encourage dialogue to end apartheid in South Africa.
Despite a broad consensus among members condemning apartheid, issues concerning South Africa have led to the most serious divisions within the Commonwealth. In 1982 the Commonwealth Games Federation held its first extraordinary meeting to discuss a tour of New Zealand by South African rugby teams. In 1986 over half of the member states pulled their teams out of the Commonwealth Games, held that year in Britain, in protest over South African participation. Conspicuously absent were the predominantly black Caribbean and African states.
The central organization for consultation and cooperation is the Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965. The Secretariat, located in London, is headed by a secretary general, elected by the heads of government for a five-year term. It organizes conferences and meetings, coordinates a broad range of activities, and disseminates information. Since World War II, member heads of state have attended the biennial meetings. Also, meetings are held periodically on specific issues of foreign affairs, defense, finance, and international debt. For example, the national finance ministers routinely meet immediately before the annual meetings of the World Bank (see Glossary) and the International Monetary Fund (see Glossary) to discuss international monetary and economic issues. The Secretariat's departments deal with administration, applied studies in government, economic affairs, education, export market development, food production and rural development, information, international affairs, legal matters, medical affairs, youth, finance, and personnel.
Two permanent directorates are within the Secretariat, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC) and the Industrial Development Unit. The CFTC was established in April 1971 to provide technical assistance for economic and social development in Commonwealth developing countries. The fund is financed by all Commonwealth nations on a voluntary basis; the CFTC's governing body includes representatives of all its contributors. The Industrial Development Unit promotes the establishment and modernization of industries in member countries.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is funded by member payments, determined individually on the basis of per capita income. Britain pays 30 percent of the Secretariat's budget.
In addition to the Secretariat, a number of Commonwealth components are noteworthy. Government and private funds are sent to less-developed members through the Commonwealth Development Corporation. Specialized organizations include the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, and various Commonwealth groups for communications, health, the law, the professions, and science and technology. The Commonwealth Games Federation, based in London, has held games every four years since 1930. The Commonwealth also maintains close links with other international organizations, including the United Nations (UN). In October 1976 the UN General Assembly granted the Commonwealth official observer status.
Aside from its general departments and specialized organizations, the Commonwealth also has four "regional groupings." One is the Colombo Plan for Cooperative, Economic, and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific, founded in 1951 (originally under a slightly different name) and headquartered in Colombo, Sri Lanka; it is designed to promote economic and social development in Asia and the Pacific. Economic assistance is provided to Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries in the region by Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States. A related program, the Conference of Heads of Government of Asian and Pacific Commonwealth Member States, began in 1978 and exists to encourage cooperation for regional development.
The other two regional groupings deal with the Caribbean: the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), an associate institution of Caricom (see Appendix C). Encompassing Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Christopher and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the OECS aims at coordinating member states' development, foreign policy, defense, and relations with international institutions. It also has responsibility for the Eastern Caribbean Currency Authority and the Eastern Caribbean States Supreme Court.