The role and future of the Commonwealth - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  The purpose of the Commonwealth

Overall purpose

9. The Commonwealth has a long history. It has been called "the world's oldest political association of sovereign states".[4] The Commonwealth's origins may be traceable to 1869-1870 when representatives from the UK's self-governing colonies met unofficially to demand consultative arrangements. The first Colonial Conference took place in 1887, coinciding with Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. From 1907 there were regular meetings of Prime Ministers, with countries invited to send their heads of government only if they had 'responsible government' on the British parliamentary model. India, although not yet self-governing, was invited to send representatives from 1917. Southern Ireland, as the Irish Free State, was added in 1922. An agreement of 1926 defined the 'position and mutual relation' of the members as autonomous, equal in status, owing common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated. These principles were embodied in the preamble to the Statute of Westminster (1931), which also declared that the Crown was the symbol of the free association of the members. The term 'British Commonwealth of Nations' was first used formally as long ago as 1921 and from 1948 the term 'The Commonwealth' replaced it.

10. The Commonwealth continued to add members after the Second World War—India and Pakistan in 1947 and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948. When India, the largest member, became a republic, it sought to remain in the Commonwealth and this was agreed by the existing members. The Declaration of London, of 26 April 1949, provided that, in place of the sole remaining formal bond of common allegiance to the Crown, the Republic of India accepted The King as the symbol of the free association of the independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth. The words of the Declaration set the tone for the future of the Commonwealth:

... the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon hereby declare that they remain united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.

Three years later, on assuming the throne, the present Queen became Head of the Commonwealth.


11. Having emerged from a group of countries that shared a connection with Britain, the modern Commonwealth has been based, from the beginning in 1949, on the maintenance of fundamental values and principles. Since the 1949 Declaration the Commonwealth has regularly restated and refreshed those principles and values. Two documents have been especially important. In 1971, at the Singapore Heads of Government Meeting, the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles defined the voluntary character and consensual working methods of the Commonwealth, specifying its goals and objectives. Among the fourteen detailed principles in the Declaration were these:

  • Within [its] diversity, all members of the Commonwealth hold certain principles in common. It is by pursuing these principles that the Commonwealth can continue to influence international society for the benefit of mankind.
  • We believe in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live. We therefore strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law that are our common heritage.

12. The 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration sought to apply those principles in the context of the end of the Cold War, pledging the Heads of Government to work "with renewed vigour" on "the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth" and towards "democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government".

13. These principles were underlined at the Port of Spain CHOGM of 2009, when, meeting in the 60th anniversary year of the modern Commonwealth, the Heads of Government, "taking pride in their collective achievements over the past six decades", reaffirmed their "strong and abiding commitment to the Commonwealth's fundamental values and principles."

Commonwealth institutions

14. There are three Commonwealth intergovernmental organisations:

  • The Commonwealth Secretariat, which carries out plans agreed by Commonwealth Heads of Government through technical assistance (via the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation—CFTC[5]), advice and policy development. The Secretariat's mission statement is: "We work as a trusted partner for all Commonwealth people as: a force for peace, democracy, equality and good governance; a catalyst for global consensus-building; a source of assistance for sustainable development and poverty eradication". Kamalesh Sharma, current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, is described on the Secretariat's website as "the principal global advocate for the Commonwealth" and is Chief Executive of the Secretariat;
  • The Commonwealth Foundation, which helps civil society organisations promote democracy, development and cultural understanding, and
  • The Commonwealth of Learning, which encourages the development and sharing of open learning and distance education.

15. The work of the formal, intergovernmental Commonwealth institutions is only part of the picture, and perhaps not the most visible part. There are around 100 associations (70 accredited) in the Commonwealth network. Among the associations are bodies concerned with land rights, parliamentary assemblies (the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association), culture, gender equality, health, humanitarian relief, disability, education and trade unions.[6] The aims of the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association (CMJA) include: "to advance the administration of the law by promoting the independence of the judiciary" and "to advance education in the law, the administration of justice, the treatment of offenders and the prevention of crime within the Commonwealth." Another example of the non-official Commonwealth at work is the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council (CYEC). This is a UK based youth development and education charity which works "alongside young people to support them as active global citizens through sharing lives, exchanging ideas and working together." The CYEC supports a bilateral UK—Commonwealth group youth exchange programme and Commonwealth-wide youth-led development and leadership projects.[7]

16. In this report we assess the effectiveness of today's Commonwealth in achieving its purposes, looking in turn at each of its main activities:

  • Promoting good governance and human and political rights in Commonwealth countries;
  • Influencing the wider international community on key global issues, and
  • Developing Commonwealth countries by means of such things as aid, trade and investment and education.

4   Commonwealth Secretariat, Report of the Committee on Commonwealth Membership, September 2007, p 3 Back

5   The CFTC provides demand-led technical assistance to member states. This includes economic resilience and trade-related work with small island states; supporting member governments in their negotiation of commercial investment agreements for the exploitation of mineral and petroleum resources; debt management support for small states including through the proprietary CS-DRMS debt recording software; and advice on the determination and agreement of international maritime boundaries. Back

6   Ev 90 Back

7   Ev 158 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 15 November 2012