The Commonwealth may not be well-known stateside, but elsewhere, it's been a force in international relations for going on a century. Below, the colonial history of the voluntary association, its function today, and the British royal family's continued role in the institution.
The Commonwealth has its roots in the British Empire. After some countries around the world began gaining some level of freedom from Britain, they became known as "dominions," and the leaders of dominions attended conferences beginning in 1887.
In 1926, at the Imperial Conference, leaders of several countries—Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa—agreed with Britain 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." This agreement was formalized in the Statute of Westminster in 1931, and agreed to by Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, and the Union of South Africa, but declined by Australia and New Zealand; India is left out, after its relationship with Britain worsened.
But it wasn't until 1949, with the London Declaration, that Commonwealth member countries were no longer required to have the British monarch as their Head of State. This decision was made after India—which joined the Commonwealth in 1947—declared that it would become a republic, but wanted to remain in the Commonwealth. The association dropped "British" from its title, becoming the Commonwealth of Nations, and its member countries were required to recognize reigning monarch King George VI as Head of the Commonwealth, rather than their Head of State.
The first members of the Commonwealth of Nations were the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka). (In the years between 1926 and 1949, several countries joined and left the association.)
The Commonwealth Secretariat, the association's principal intergovernmental agency, is founded in 1965. It is based in Marlborough House in London, where it remains to this day.
Leaders of member countries began convening at Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conferences in 1944; starting in 1971, these became known as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), held biannually. The first CHOGM, held in Singapore, lead to the Singapore Declaration—a document that laid out the core political aims of the Commonwealth, which, per the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, include "equal rights for all regardless of race, color, creed or political belief, the association’s commitment to democratic self-determination and non-racialism, world peace and an end to gross inequity, and its commitment to practice international cooperation in pursuit of these goals." A subsequent agreement, the Harare Declaration of 1991, reaffirmed these commitments, and laid out the Commonwealth's criteria for member countries.
The Commonwealth Today
The Commonwealth is now a voluntary association of 54 countries, nearly all of which were formerly under British rule (Rwanda and Mozambique, which joined in 2009 and 1995, respectively, are the exceptions). Its work around the globe—carried out in support of the goals laid out in its Charter, adopted in 2012—is supported by a group of over 80 organizations.
Leaders continue to gather at biannual CHOGM conferences, and the Commonwealth Games, an international sporting competition among member countries, is held every four years.
The Royal Family's Involvement
The Head of the Commonwealth is not a hereditary position, but Queen Elizabeth was appointed to the role after her father King George VI's death, and in 2018, Prince Charles was named her successor. Fifteen Commonwealth countries, known as Commonwealth Realms, also still call Queen Elizabeth their monarch.
To support the Commonwealth's work, leading members of the British royal family are regularly asked to undertake official visits to Commonwealth countries, at the request of the UK's Foreign Office. At home in the UK, royals also often attend events and engagements with ties to the Commonwealth and its associated organizations.
The royals are also very involved in some of the Commonwealth's organizations. The Queen's Commonwealth Canopy, for example, was founded in 2015 to "mark Her Majesty The Queen’s service to the Commonwealth while conserving indigenous forests for future generations," per its website; the Queen and other royals continue to attend events supporting its work. And the Royal Commonwealth Society, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018, has named Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is inaugural Vice-Patron.
Prior to stepping back from their roles as working royals, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle seemed poised to take on significant responsibilities in Commonwealth organizations. That's now changed somewhat—Harry will no longer be Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, for example—but Harry and Meghan remain President and Vice President of the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, and Meghan is still Patron of Association of Commonwealth Universities.
The Commonwealth faces regular criticism on multiple fronts; perhaps the most salient complaint, though, is the association's roots in colonialism. When Gambia announced its withdrawal in 2013, it decried the Commonwealth as a "neo-colonial institution."
It's also been noted that the association has little power in comparison to some other international alliances, and that it can fail to live up to its promises: at times, the Commonwealth has upheld its commitments to key values, punishing countries for fraudulent elections and human rights abuses, but as Afua Hirsch writes in the Guardian, it hasn't done so in Solomon Islands, Swaziland, the Maldives, and Singapore. Philip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, has called the Commonwealth "an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia."
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