The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest associations of sovereign states. The phrase “Commonwealth of Nations” was used by Lord Rosebery, a British politician, in 1884 while describing the changing political structure of the British Empire.
As the British Empire began its long process of decolonization after World War I with the creation (or re-creation) of independent states from former British colonies, the need for an organization of countries formerly part of the Empire became apparent.
In 1931, the British Commonwealth of Nations was founded under the Statute of Westminster with five initial members – the United Kingdom, Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, and the Union of South Africa. In 1946, the word “British” was dropped and the association became known as simply the Commonwealth of Nations. Australia and New Zealand adopted the Statute in 1942 and 1947, respectively.
With India’s independence in 1947, the new democracy wanted to become a Republic and to not utilize the British monarch as its statutory head of state. The London Declaration of 1949 modified the requirement that members accept the monarch as head of state but instead recognize the monarch as the leader of the Commonwealth. With this adjustment, additional countries joined the Commonwealth as they gained independence from Great Britain. Membership today is based on equal and voluntary co-operation. The last two countries to join the Commonwealth – Rwanda and Mozambique – have no association with the former British Empire.
Today there are 54 member countries in the Commonwealth; 33 are republics (such as India), five have their own monarchs (such as Brunei Darussalam), and 16 have a constitutional monarchy with the British sovereign as their head of state (such as Canada and Australia).
The population of the 54 member states exceeds two billion, approximately 30% of the world population.
“Through exchanging ideas, and seeing life from other perspectives, we grow in understanding and work more collaboratively towards a common future… There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the Commonwealth connection; shared inheritances help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division.”
- The Commonwealth Secretary-General is elected by the Heads of Government of the membership and can serve two four-year terms. The position of Secretary-General was established in 1965.
- The Commonwealth Secretariat has its headquarters in London and is composed of 320 staff members from the member countries. The Commonwealth maintains its own flag.
- The purpose of the Commonwealth is international cooperation and to advance economies, social development, and human rights in member countries. Decisions of the various Commonwealth councils are non-binding.
- The Commonwealth of Nations supports the Commonwealth Games, which is held every four years.
- Commonwealth Day is celebrated on the second Monday in March. Each year carries a different theme but each country can celebrate the day as they choose.