Everyone must know about the existence of the Commonwealth, but do you really know what it is? Here are some quick facts to clear up misunderstandings!
What is the Commonwealth?
The Commonwealth of Nations is one of the oldest political association of states in the world, created in 1949. This intergovernmental organisation gathers 53 member states, usually former territories of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. The population of this organization represents about 2.4 billion people, i.e. about one third of the total global population.
Members include Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, India, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago and Uganda. Three nations – Mozambique, Rwanda and Cameroon – joined despite never having been ruled by Britain.
How was it created?
The Commonwealth began to formally emerge in the 1920s, but the birth of the network is often seen to begin with the 1949 London Declaration. Countries signing the declaration pledged to be « free and equal » members of the renamed Commonwealth of Nations, « freely co-operating in pursuit of peace, liberty and progress« .
During the 1940s – 1960s, more countries gained independence from Britain – a process that, like colonial rule itself, was in many cases tumultuous and bloody.
The Harare declaration in 1991 is billed as the Commonwealth’s core set of principles and values. Those include: world peace, economic development, the rule of law, a narrowing of the wealth gap, an end to racial discrimination, liberty regardless of race or creed and the « inalienable right to free democratic processes ».
What is the role of this organization?
The institution is perhaps best known for the Commonwealth Games, which take place every four years and were originally called the British Empire games. But this organization does actually more than that.
Its aim is to help member states promote democracy and rule of law, human rights, good governance and social and economic development. The Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965, makes decisions based on a consensus model, and meets every two years.
It also enables otherwise isolated and impoverished nations to network with powerful allies and to achieve a bigger global impact, especially on issues such as climate change.
What are its limits?
However, critics say its commitment to the justice and rights doesn’t hold up. Among the embarrassments of the Commonwealth was a failure to recognise Sri Lankan human rights abuses, and when the 2013 Commonwealth Summit was held in Colombo it provoked international outrage.
The recent scandal of Windrush children (Commonwealth British citizens who faced deportation threats after years of living in the UK) has also brought up uncomfortable questions over British attitudes to the Commonwealth and the people living in it.
What about the future?
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, some Brexiteers think the Commonwealth could play an important future role in trade links in the UK.
Others think that the nature of Brexit makes it unlikely that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU can, in fact, boost the economic role of the Commonwealth. The UK exports nearly five times as much to the EU than to the Commonwealth. At its core, Brexit is a reclamation of sovereignty by the UK, enabling potentially different policy choices that cannot then be deployed in a significant way at Commonwealth level.
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