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Old Monday, November 21, 2005
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Default Commonwealth of Nations

INTRODUCTION

Commonwealth of Nations, worldwide association of nations and their dependencies, whose members share a common commitment to promoting human rights, democracy, and economic development. All members accept the British monarch as the symbolic head of the Commonwealth. All but one, Mozambique, were once associated in some constitutional way with either the former British Empire or with another member country. The association was formerly known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, but today is referred to simply as the Commonwealth.
About 1.7 billion people live in the 54 independent nations and the more than 20 dependencies that make up the Commonwealth. Commonwealth members share many customs and traditions as a result of their association with Britain. Many have parliamentary systems of government on the British model, and their judicial and educational institutions are often similar to those in Britain. English is an official language of many members of the Commonwealth. Since 1977 the second Monday in March has been celebrated as Commonwealth Day; on that day the British monarch, as the head of the Commonwealth, presents an annual message to all member countries.

2) DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH

Almost all members of the Commonwealth were once ruled by Britain as part of the British Empire. Some of them, such as Australia and Canada, were largely settled by British people. Others, such as India and Nigeria, were areas where British administrators governed a large non-British population.
During the first half of the 19th century the British government granted settlers of European origin in the colonies of Canada and Australia some self-government. At first, self-government was limited to local affairs, but it was gradually extended. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a number of areas under British control gained almost full independence and became known as dominions, rather than colonies. These included the Irish Free State, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In 1926 dominions became defined as free and equal countries within the British Empire. The Statute of Westminster, enacted by the British Parliament in 1931, officially proclaimed the Commonwealth a free association of self-governing dominions united by a common allegiance to the Crown. As such, Commonwealth members were entitled to join international organizations as independent nations.
In 1949 Commonwealth prime ministers issued the London Declaration. The declaration changed membership in the Commonwealth from one based on common allegiance to the British Crown to one in which members agreed to recognize the British monarch as a symbol of their association, and thus head of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth nations were no longer required to recognize the Crown as their head of state. India became the first republican member with its own president as head of state. Today the British monarch is considered the head of state in only 16 Commonwealth countries, which are now formally called realms. Realms include Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The other members recognize the Crown only as head of the Commonwealth.
During the decades following the London Declaration, many of Britain’s colonies and dependencies in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific gained their independence and joined the Commonwealth, although some Commonwealth members have also withdrawn. Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949. South Africa withdrew in 1961 after many Commonwealth members condemned its policies of apartheid (racial separation) and white supremacy. South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994 after apartheid ended. Fiji lost its membership in 1987 when a military coup took over its government, but its membership was reinstated in 1997 after the country adopted a new constitution more in line with Commonwealth principles.


3) ORGANIZATION OF THE COMMONWEALTH

A) Citizenship
Before World War II (1939-1945), in theory, all the people of the Commonwealth had a common nationality as British subjects. In practice, however, most Commonwealth countries had immigration policies that restricted the admission of British subjects from other parts of the Commonwealth. For example, in Canada and Australia, where most of the inhabitants are of European descent, the immigration of people from African and Asian Commonwealth countries was forbidden or limited. In 1946 Canada became the first Commonwealth country to legally distinguish between its own citizens and other British subjects. Although all Canadian citizens were British subjects, all British subjects were not Canadian citizens. Under a law passed in 1977 Canadians became “citizens of the Commonwealth” instead of British subjects. Today the people of independent Commonwealth countries are citizens of their own country first and Commonwealth citizens second.

B) Types of Membership
The Commonwealth consists of 54 independent nations, their dependencies, and two special members—the independent island nations of Nauru and Tuvalu. As special members, Nauru and Tuvalu contribute to the organization’s budget on a voluntary basis and receive aid from the Commonwealth, but do not participate in the meetings attended by heads of governments. Only independent nations can be considered full members; they are all fully sovereign and in no way subordinate to Britain. Dependencies of Commonwealth nations are also included in the Commonwealth, although not as full members, and can participate in many Commonwealth activities.

C) Administration
The Commonwealth is a flexible and often informal association. Its main function is to encourage communication and cooperation among its diverse members, with their different needs and concerns. In 1965 the Commonwealth Secretariat was established in London to serve as a clearinghouse for the exchange of information. The Secretariat is headed by the Commonwealth secretary general and is responsible for carrying out programs formulated during the various meetings. The secretary general is elected by the Commonwealth heads of government from among the many Commonwealth diplomats and ministers. The Commonwealth Foundation provides financial and other support to professional associations and nongovernment organizations, enabling these groups to travel to other Commonwealth countries to work together. The Commonwealth Games, established in 1930 as the British Empire Games, bring together athletes from nations around the world every four years.
The heads of Commonwealth governments meet to discuss common problems every two years at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM). In addition, ministers and experts in education, health, finance, science, law, women’s issues, youth affairs, and various technical fields meet frequently to consult and act on important issues.

4) TRADE AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
For many years economic relations formed a major link among Commonwealth countries. Patterns of trade established during the British Empire survived even after most dependencies became independent, and some of the old economic ties were preserved under a system of mutual tariff preferences set up in 1932. The system benefited the less-developed members by reducing or eliminating British duties on certain exports, mainly foodstuffs. In return, these countries favored Britain in their imports of certain manufactured goods. The importance of this tariff system declined in the 1960s as Britain increased its trade with other developed nations, especially in Europe. Other Commonwealth nations also diversified their economies and found new trading partners outside the Commonwealth. In 1973 Britain entered the European Economic Community, now the European Union (EU), and adopted its tariffs, which changed the established trading patterns among the Commonwealth nations.

The exchange of technical experts and advice, through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, plays a significant role in Commonwealth affairs. Several of the more prosperous Commonwealth countries are members of the Colombo Plan, which provides funds for the economic development of southern Asia and parts of the Pacific. The larger Commonwealth nations are also helping the smaller, less-developed members become part of the global economy. To this end, they have established more liberal trade arrangements and organized regional private investment funds.

5) THE COMMONWEALTH IN WORLD AFFAIRS
The Commonwealth does not act as a bloc in world affairs. In the United Nations, for example, some Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, usually support the United States and Britain, while others do not. Members of the Commonwealth are free to join other international or regional organizations. Britain and Canada, for example, are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The African members have all joined the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and Guyana, Canada, and the Caribbean countries are members of the Organization of American States (OAS).
In 1971 the Commonwealth set forth the Singapore Declaration of shared principles that included commitments to peace, individual liberty, freedom from racism, international cooperation, and economic and social development. These commitments were reaffirmed in the Harare Declaration in 1991, which emphasized democracy and human rights. To deal with serious and persistent violations of these principles, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was set up in 1995. It includes eight ministers who assess the extent of violations and recommend measures for collective action. The Commonwealth can enforce these principles with such punitive measures as economic sanctions or suspension from involvement in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s efforts to promote democracy have encouraged a number of its members with military regimes to convert to civilian governments.

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