The Commonwealth of Nations, typically referred to simply as the Commonwealth, is a political association of former British Empire territories. The Commonwealth is made up of 54 member states from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific. The member states are home to a total of over 2.4 billion people. The Commonwealth was originally titled the British Commonwealth, a reference to the fact that its members were all former British colonies that had achieved self-governance. The Commonwealth is often confused with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a similar intergovernmental body composed of former members of the Soviet Union.
Countries of the Commonwealth of Nations (2022):
Form and purpose of the Commonwealth of Nations
Unlike the Council of Europe or the CARICOM countries, whose members are clustered together geographically, the members of the Commonwealth of Nations are spread all around the globe, akin to the countries of the United Nations. They also display great variety. The Commonwealth includes Canada, one of the world's largest countries; and India, one of the world's most populous countries; as well as several island nations that are among the smallest countries in the world.
Member states of the Commonwealth have no legal obligations to one another but are connected through historical ties and use of the English language. Member states also have shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, as outlined in the Commonwealth Charter.
The Charter describes the Commonwealth as “a voluntary association of independent and sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of our peoples in the promotion of international understanding and world peace, and influencing international society to the benefit of all through the pursuit of common principles and values.”
The Commonwealth is made up of three intergovernmental organizations. The Commonwealth Secretariat supports member countries to achieve the commonwealth’s goals. The Commonwealth Foundation supports participation in democracy and development. The Commonwealth of Learning promotes open learning and distance education. In addition to these three main organizations, member states are also supported by an additional 80 intergovernmental, professional, civil, and cultural organizations.
History of the Commonwealth of Nations
The Commonwealth was created in 1926 through the Balfour Declaration at the Imperial Conference and was formalized by the United Kingdom in 1931. The modern Commonwealth was constituted in 1949 by the London Declaration, which was signed by eight countries: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Canada. The London Declaration established the member states as “free and equal.”
The Commonwealth was initially headed by King George VI of England. After his passing in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II became the Head of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth member countries choose who becomes the Head of the Commonwealth, it is not automatically passed between the British Royal Family, or between countries with royal families. That said, upon Queen Elizabeth II's death in 2022, her son, King Charles III, became head of the Commonwealth, as decided by the Commonwealth leaders in 2018.
Membership requirements for the Commonwealth of Nations
Membership requirements have changed several times since the establishment of the Commonwealth. While the Commonwealth originally required dominionhood for membership, it changed to requiring new members to have a direct constitutional link to current members “as a general rule.” Thanks to this looser interpretation, Mozambique in 1995 became the first country to join the Commonwealth without having a direct link to a member.
Today, member countries are required to be fully sovereign states, to recognize the chosen head of the Commonwealth, and to accept and comply with the principles outlined in the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration. These include striving for world peace, individual liberty, and egalitarianism; opposing racism and colonialism; and working to eliminate global poverty, ignorance, disease, and economic inequality. Additionally, members must accept the English language as the means of Commonwealth communication and respect the wishes of the general population in regard to Commonwealth membership.
The leaders of each member country meet every two years at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The meetings are used as a way to discuss policies and problems affecting the member countries.