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Monday, 3 April, 2000, 06:19 GMT 07:19 UK
Guide to the Commonwealth
commonwealth flags
The Commonwealth has pledged to promote democracy and human rights
By international analyst Ron Gerver

The Commonwealth is one of the few global organisations with members from both developed and developing countries. What exactly is the Commonwealth? Who are its members? And what is its role in the modern world?

In April 1999, the Commonwealth celebrated the 50th anniversary of the London Declaration, which transformed what had once been the British Empire into the modern association of 54 members it has since become.

The word "British" was dropped and the emphasis was placed on the development of a multi-racial and free association of independent states.

Changing role

At the 1995 Commonwealth meeting in New Zealand, the Queen, who is head of the Commonwealth, welcomed the return of South Africa - which had left the organisation in 1960 - and emphasised the organisation's changing role in a changing world.

The Queen said: "A forebear of mine, accused of being against reform said that this was far from the case. There is a time for everything, he said, and the time for reform is when it can no longer be resisted.

Queen Elizabeth II is the Commonwealth's figurehead
"Happily the Commonwealth takes a more forward view of change and there is living proof of that here tonight in the presence of President Mandela of South Africa and President Biya of Cameroon.

"We welcome you both and hope that you are finding that this organisation lives up to its ideals as an effective, adaptable and significant force for good in a troubled world."

From the late 1940s to the late 1950s, the Commonwealth was a small British-run club of fewer than 10 members. But membership expanded rapidly with decolonisation, particularly in Africa, but also in Asia.

By 1965, when the Commonwealth Secretariat was established - the Secretariat is the administrative heart of the organisation - the number of members had risen to 21.


Former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who was only the third person to hold the office, defined the kind of association the Commonwealth had evolved into.

"The Commonwealth has become an association of democratically-elected countries and a military coup (like the one in Pakistan) runs counter to the basic principles of the Commonwealth and the country that indulges in a coup automatically suspends itself from the councils of the Commonwealth."

Chief Anyaoku: Only the third person to become secretary-general
Since the Harare Declaration of 1991, the Commonwealth has collectively pledged itself to try to promote good government, democracy and popular accountability. It has not always succeeded.

The death sentences passed on the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and a group of fellow activists in 1995 by a military regime in Nigeria, led to the suspension of that country from the Commonwealth.

The then Canadian premier, Jean Chretien, speaking at that year's Commonwealth summit in New Zealand underlined that such an action, or indeed other brutal extra-judicial behaviour had no place in the modern Commonwealth.

"Enough is enough. We in the Commonwealth must help to find an equitable and just solution to this tragedy if we want to stand tall and uphold the very principles we praised in Harare," he said.

Ken Saro-Wiwa's death sentence led to Nigeria's suspension
The Commonwealth has had to deal with many other internal crises: the Indo-Pakistan wars; the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia; Singapore's separation from Malaysia; and the unresolved question of Cyprus.

Not all of its members are models of democratic rule. Nonetheless the organisation has managed to make its voice heard in world affairs.

It took the lead in supporting the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa during the 1970s and '80s - sometimes to the discomfort of the Thatcher government in Britain.

And over the past two decades the Commonwealth has become a notable champion of the concerns of smaller nations.

This is hardly surprising since many of its members fall into that category.

New members

Perhaps a good indication of its standing is the fact that not only have a number of countries rejoined the Commonwealth in recent years - such as South Africa and Fiji - but there have also been new members like Cameroon and Mozambique.

Interestingly, too, there have been indications that Yasser Arafat has considered Palestinian membership on the basis of British rule during its 30-year mandate until 1948.

Only three countries that were once part of the British Empire have remained outside the Commonwealth: the Irish Republic, which left in 1949; Burma, which decided not to join on independence; and Aden, which has since become one country with Yemen.

The Commonwealth may be a very imperfect association. But at its best it has played an effective role in tackling important world issues and its relevance is sure to continue in the new millennium.

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