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Friday, October 24, 1997 Published at 15:02 GMT


A brief history of the Commonwealth
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To some, the Commonwealth is an out-dated remnant of the British Empire - although it would be impolite to say so at the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh (November 23-25).

To its members, however, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 50 independent states, which is in the business of promoting democracy, good government, human rights, and economic development.

The modern Commonwealth has its roots in the 19th century, when the British Empire began to disintegrate. As some of its constituent parts gained varying degrees of independence from the motherland, a new constitutional definition of their relationship with each other had to be found.

The end of the Empire

At the Imperial Conference of 1926, the United Kingdom and its dominions agreed that 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."

But only following India and Pakistan's independence in 1947 did the organisation define its modern shape.

It dropped the word British from its name, the allegiance to the crown from its statute, and became a receptacle for decolonised nations. The Monarch of the United Kingdom, however, remained the official 'Head of the Commonwealth'.

The modern Commonwealth

Today, the Commonwealth has 53 members, comprising most of the former dependencies of the United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand. Around one quarter of the world's population lives in its member countries.

In spite of this impressive statistic, the organisation appears strangely ineffectual. Besides the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat which was established in 1964, it has no formal structure as such, and its members have no contractual obligations as exist in the United Nations, the European Union or the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Instead, the Commonwealth draws its strength from its moral authority. Committed to racial equality and national sovereignty, it was a focus of the campaign against apartheid. South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961, to rejoin only after the end of apartheid in 1994.

The ethics of international politics

A formal 'code of ethics' was adopted in 1971, when Commonwealth countries pledged to improve human rights and to seek racial and economic justice. After the end of the Cold War the organisation expanded its mission statement. At the 1991 Heads of Government meeting in Harare the promotion of democracy and good government were added to the list of Commonwealth principles.

All these were fine ideas, but the organisation had no mechanism or means of enforcing them.

But two years ago, at a summit in New Zealand, the Commonwealth finally did agree on practical steps to deal with governments who persistently violated these principles. The first country to feel the difference was Nigeria, whose membership was suspended during the same meeting.

To be able to tackle similar problems, a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group was formed. The experience of dealing with Nigeria has, however, cast doubt on how effective the Commonwealth can be in enforcing its principles.

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Internet Links

The Official CHOGM '97 web site

The Commonwealth

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Commonwealth Gateway

The Commonwealth Yearbook

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