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

6  The future membership of the Commonwealth

117. A number of countries have applied to, or are considering applying to, join the Commonwealth. Rwanda is the newest member of the Commonwealth, having joined at the 2009 CHOGM. Witnesses were divided on whether this addition to the 'family' had been a positive step for the Commonwealth, or for Rwanda. Lord Howell observed that Rwanda's leader had told him that joining the Commonwealth had been the best thing it had ever done; it was "attracting all sorts of interest" and was "a powerful pressure for political reform inside the country".[163] On the other hand Professor Philip Murphy was not convinced, saying that it had been a mistake to allow countries like Mozambique and Rwanda to join when they lacked "an historical constitutional link with Great Britain".[164] The FCO has expressed continuing uncertainty about Rwanda's commitment to certain Commonwealth values, stating in a September 2012 update to its 2011 Annual Human Rights Report that "Freedom of expression and association have remained issues of concern in Rwanda during 2012."[165]

118. An expression of interest in membership by South Sudan was received in August 2011, and the Secretary-General, on behalf of the Heads of Government, is making an appraisal of South Sudan's "eligibility and readiness for membership". Lord Howell told us of the interest he had encountered from non-members, including Algeria and Suriname. He noted that on a recent visit to Kuwait, the first question that he was asked was about the Commonwealth.[166]

119. Membership is only granted under certain conditions. In 2007 the Patterson Committee on Commonwealth membership came to the view that, "provided an aspirant member was a sovereign state, had a historic constitutional link with an existing member or a group of its members and adhered to the Commonwealth's fundamental principles, values and norms, a modest expansion in membership would be in the interest of the Commonwealth's strategic engagement with the wider world". [167] Emphasising the need for these fundamental principles and values to be the core criteria for new members, the Committee proposed the following basic conditions to be met by an applicant country:

(a) an applicant country should, as a general rule, have had an historic constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member, or a substantial relationship with the Commonwealth generally, or a particular group of members, for example, in a common regional organization;

(b) an applicant country accepts and complies with Commonwealth fundamental values, principles, and priorities as set out in the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and contained in other subsequent declarations;

(c) among the criteria an applicant country must meet would be a demonstrable commitment to: democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity;

(d) an applicant country should accept Commonwealth norms and conventions, such as the use of the English language, as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations and acknowledgment of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth;

(e) new members should be encouraged to join the Commonwealth Foundation, and to promote vigorous civil society and business organizations within their countries, and to foster participatory democracy through regular civil society consultations.

120. Senator Segal urged an expansive approach to membership, suggesting that the Commonwealth should have an "expansion plan", which should be to look at countries that have had "a similar historical evolution" to current members. He argued that "Whenever you decide that you have reached your plateau, that often produces the Sleepy Hollow effect, which is deeply unhelpful."[168] Stuart Mole was also "generally supportive" of the idea of the Commonwealth developing its membership, but cautioned that with expansion there might come a point at which it would be increasingly difficult to maintain the intimacy of Heads of Government meetings and other gatherings. Among Mr Mole's "obvious candidates" for new (or returned) members were Ireland and Burma.[169]

121. But we also heard voices cautioning against expansion to countries that had never been part of the original Commonwealth 'family'. Professor Murphy said that too often in discussions about membership, "the very immediate historical links" between long-standing Commonwealth members were played down too much.[170]

122. We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members, and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values. The UK Government must ensure that these membership criteria are fully observed with every application, if necessary employing its veto in suitable cases.


123. Our inquiry considered in particular one special aspect of Commonwealth membership: the status of the Crown Dependencies and the UK Overseas Territories. These are two different groups of constitutional entities, but in some cases the arguments about their relationship with the Commonwealth are similar.

124. The Crown Dependencies are the Bailiwick of Jersey, the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Isle of Man. The Bailiwick of Guernsey includes the separate jurisdictions of Alderney and Sark. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are not part of the UK but are self-governing dependencies of the Crown. This means they have their own directly elected legislative assemblies, administrative, fiscal and legal systems and their own courts of law. The Crown Dependencies are not represented in the UK Parliament. The Crown Dependencies have never been colonies of the UK.

125. There are 14 Overseas Territories—Anguilla; Bermuda; British Antarctic Territory; British Indian Ocean Territory; Cayman Islands; Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus; Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands (commonly known as the Pitcairn Islands); St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Turks and Caicos Islands; and Virgin Islands (commonly known as the British Virgin Islands). While after the Second World War most British colonies and dominions became new independent states and members of the Commonwealth. A number of small territories retained links of various kinds to the UK, including some territories directly dependent on the UK for budgetary aid, linked to the UK as the FCO says, "because of the wishes of the inhabitants or, in some cases, maintained as military bases or for their longer term strategic value".[171] Although many of the Territories have very small populations (and some are uninhabited), others, including Bermuda (with nearly 65,000 people) have larger populations than a number of independent states.

126. The FCO told us that, as the only category of membership in the Commonwealth is that of a sovereign state as full member: "The Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are not therefore members of the Commonwealth in their own right, although they are associated with it through their connection to the UK." The FCO points out that "there are already linkages between the Territories and Crown Dependencies and the Commonwealth." For example, they have their own branches of the CPA and the Commonwealth Games Federation, and they send teams to the Commonwealth Games. They attend other meetings such as the Commonwealth Finance Ministers' and Sports Ministers' meetings, and other Ministerial meetings, as part of the UK delegation.[172]

127. The Government told us in written evidence it was "keen to re-open discussions with the Commonwealth Secretariat and member states on different categories of membership, such as observer status." It said that there were "some clear advantages for introducing observer status", including "the benefits of a more diverse membership bringing a greater breadth of expertise to the Commonwealth" and "enabling countries seeking full membership to gain experience of how the Commonwealth works".[173]

128. In particular, the FCO says that Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies could "benefit from increased engagement with the Commonwealth".[174] The FCO Memorandum concludes by saying that the UK will re-open discussions on this issue by approaching Australia as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, and the Commonwealth Secretariat, before opening the discussion up to other member states.[175]

129. Stuart Mole argued for a fresh look at the relationship between the Commonwealth and both the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, and criticised the Patterson inquiry for its "very conservative" approach to expansion. He believed the Commonwealth "could be much more imaginative in looking at different layers and levels of engagement".[176] For example, he urged greater involvement of territories such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar in hosting Commonwealth meetings.[177]

130. Professor Philip Murphy however urged caution, explaining what he saw as the reasoning behind the principle that Commonwealth countries should be sovereign and independent. His argument was based on "ongoing concern" among Commonwealth members that Commonwealth membership might seem in some way to subordinate them to the British Government.

What they have always been able to say is, "That is not the case because a key criterion is that we are completely independent." It would not be popular within the Commonwealth to allow states in like the Falklands that are not properly independent.[178]

131. The Editorial Board of The Round Table also underlined the importance of sovereignty as a defining characteristic of a Commonwealth state. It believed that the bar of sovereignty, rather than nationhood and self-determination, as a condition of Commonwealth membership was unlikely to change.[179] The Round Table also raised some other constitutional questions, first putting the issue in the context of the debate about the future of the United Kingdom. It told us that:

short of independence, it would be difficult to contemplate a higher status for the Turks & Caicos Islands within the Commonwealth, for example, than for the Scottish nation (due to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014). The devolved institutions of the United Kingdom have also begun to demonstrate a larger, more independent role within the Commonwealth, although would undoubtedly wish for more. They certainly would not want an inferior status to anything that might be secured by the Overseas Territories.[180]

132. The Round Table also pointed out that a new status would have wider implications for other Commonwealth countries. It argued that creating a new category of membership which included the provinces of Canada, the states of India, South Africa, Malaysia and Australia, as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and the overseas territories and crown dependencies) "would involve considerable challenges for limited benefit".[181]  

Crown Dependencies

133. The Crown Dependencies are not sovereign states and the UK Government is responsible for representing them internationally and for their defence. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for the UK Government's relationship with the Crown Dependencies, but the responsibility for their international representation is shared across the UK Government. Our evidence clearly demonstrates that there is unhappiness within some of the Dependencies with the working of this arrangement.

134. In international negotiations the UK has to represent both the interests of the UK and those of the Dependencies. The States of Jersey argued that this was an unsatisfactory arrangement, which "does not reflect the increasing role that Jersey plays in international affairs". The fact that the Island depends on the UK representative to make its contribution presents "inherent difficulties". The States argued that this was because, given that the UK has far more extensive national interests than Jersey, its representative may not place the same weight on issues affecting the island as a Jersey representative would "and might choose to focus his/her energies on matters more important to the UK".[182] In evidence to the Justice Committee of this House in 2009 and 2010, the then Minister responsible for these issues in the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that, where there was a conflict between those interests, those of the UK would take precedence.[183]

135. The UK has agreed with each Crown Dependency an "International Identity Framework" (similarly worded in each case) in which the relationship between the UK and each jurisdiction is set out.[184] Among the key principles of the Guernsey framework for instance are:

  • The UK will not act internationally on behalf of Guernsey without prior consultation.
  • The UK recognises that the interests of Guernsey may differ from those of the UK, and the UK will seek to represent any differing interests when acting in an international capacity.

136. In its evidence to us, the UK Government recognised that in light of their growing international identity, the Crown Dependencies might legitimately seek to deepen their connections with the Commonwealth. The FCO said that "Should the Crown Dependencies want to seek any changes in how they are represented at Commonwealth events, the UK would be willing to discuss this with them."[185] However the FCO also said that: "The Crown Dependencies have made no request to join or have greater engagement with the Commonwealth."[186]

137. We were surprised to see this categorical statement from the FCO, in light of the fact that the three Crown Dependencies have argued for just such greater engagement in their evidence to us. The most detailed case was made by the States of Jersey, which urged that the Foreign Secretary should request that the Commonwealth Heads of Government "consider granting associate membership to Jersey and the other Crown Dependencies as well as any other territories at a similarly advanced stage of autonomy".[187] The States of Guernsey and the Government of the Isle of Man made similar, if more modest, suggestions for closer Commonwealth connections.[188]

Overseas Territories

138. Our predecessor Committee recommended in 2008 that "the Government should give consideration to whether it would be appropriate to support wider participation of Overseas Territories in Commonwealth meetings and conferences, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting".[189] In its response, the Government noted that it "actively supports and invites the Overseas Territories, where appropriate, to participate in Commonwealth meetings as part of the United Kingdom's delegation", but said:

The Commonwealth is an association of sovereign member states who are equal in all respects. Full participation in all Commonwealth meetings is based on membership of the Commonwealth. The Overseas Territories are not member states of the Commonwealth although they are associated with it through their connection to the UK.[190]

139. The Government set out for us in written evidence its approach to the relationship between the Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth. This was based on ensuring that the Territories were able to make the most of the opportunities offered by the Commonwealth, including both formal and informal bodies. The FCO told us that the Government sees an opportunity to "redefine and establish more tangible and beneficial links between the Territories and the Commonwealth." This was because:

The range of issues faced by some of the Territories, such as good governance, climate change and economic diversification, are also being faced by several small Commonwealth nations whose experience could be usefully shared, for example through the Commonwealth Secretariat's assistance to Small States. This would benefit the UK through the gradual reduction in our liability, and improved self-sufficiency for the Territories.[191]

140. In giving evidence to this Committee, Lord Howell said that "Whether we should talk about status change is not something we have considered for the moment. The Foreign Secretary has stated our commitment to increasing OTs' engagement in the Commonwealth and all sorts of ideas are around: associate status, observer status and generally ensuring that they get a very good welcome and their voice is properly heard."[192]

141. In a White Paper of June 2012 the Government again set out its vision for the development of these connections, reiterating the UK's desire to strengthen links between the Commonwealth and the Territories. It repeated that it was "exploring the possibility of creating observer or associate member status of the Commonwealth from which the Territories might benefit".[193]

142. We conclude that there are substantial arguments in favour of stronger connections between the Commonwealth and the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, all of which can benefit from closer relationships, especially with the smaller independent states of the Commonwealth. We note the apparently increasing interest in the Crown Dependencies in stronger connections with the Commonwealth, in some cases including associate status.

143. However, we are also aware of the constitutional objections, both in the UK and in other countries across the Commonwealth, to the institution of a wholly new category of Commonwealth member. We are currently conducting an inquiry into the foreign policy implications of and for a separate Scotland, and some related issues will be considered during the course of that inquiry.

144. The main objective of Government policy towards the Overseas Territories on Commonwealth matters is clear; it wishes to strengthen the capacity of the Territories to run their own affairs and thereby to reduce their dependence on the UK and the financial and other liability that they incur. This is a reasonable objective, but it is disappointing that the Government's discussions with the Commonwealth over an enhanced status for Overseas Territories have continued for some time, with no concrete outcome as yet. The FCO should update the Committee on progress on these discussions by the end of December 2012.

163   Q 185 Back

164   Q 46 Back

165   FCO Human Rights: Quarterly update: Rwanda, 30 September 2012: Back

166   Q 143 Back

167   The Committee was convened in 2006 by the Commonwealth Secretariat and chaired by Mr P J Patterson, former Prime Minister of Jamaica. There were seven other members. Commonwealth Secretariat: Membership of the Commonwealth: Report of the Committee on Commonwealth Membership, November 2007, p. vi Back

168   Q 17 Back

169   Q 69 Back

170   Q 49 Back

171   Foreign and Commonwealth Office: The Overseas Territories: Security Success and Sustainability, June 2012, Cm 8374, p 11 Back

172   Ev 94-95 Back

173   Ev 89 Back

174   Ev 90 Back

175   IbidBack

176   Q 69 Back

177   Q 72 Back

178   Q 46 Back

179   Ev 70 Back

180   Ev 70 Back

181   IbidBack

182   Ev 144 Back

183   Ibid.  Back

184   Justice Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2009-10, Crown Dependencies, HC 56, Appendix 4 Back

185   Ev 95 Back

186   IbidBack

187   Ev 146 Back

188   Ev 129-32, Ev 151-55 Back

189   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, Overseas Territories, HC 147, para 144 Back

190   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Response of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the Seventh Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee Session 2007-08: Overseas Territories, Cm 7473, September 2008, p 18


191   Ev 95 Back

192   Q 183 Back

193   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Overseas Territories, p 83 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 15 November 2012