O Level Revision : History - The  Commonwealth of Nations

The Commonwealth is a successor to the British Empire. It is made up of former British colonies which are now independent states. Britain formed it in order to keep control over the independent states.


    The  origins of the  Commonwealth of Nations 

    • The British colonies of North America were thefirst to request for self-government.
    • Britain feared to lose markets and sources of raw materials and so refused to give them independence.
    • America fought the British and became independent on 4 July 1776 as the United States of America (USA).
    • Australia, Canada, Irish Free State, New Zealand and South Africa achieved dominion status between 1867 and 1921; they broke away from the British Empire.
    • They formed, together with the UK, the British Commonwealth of Nations.
    • At independence, India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Pakistan joined the Commonwealth of Nations.
    • The independent countries became republics and did not recognise the British Monarch as head of state.
    • Britain once boasted that, “The sun does not set in the British Empire.” Now it was setting and setting forever.
    • The emergence of republics caused a constitutional crisis and in April 1949, 8 Commonwealth Prime Ministers met in London to discuss the problem.
    • The  eight   countries   were:  Australia;   Britain; Canada; New Zealand; Sri Lanka; Pakistan; India; South Africa
    • They  discussed  India’s  application  to  join  the Commonwealth upon becoming a republic in July 1949.
    • The Nehru Formula of 1949 forbade the British Monarch from being the Head of State of Commonwealth countries but only the Head of the Commonwealth.
    • Commonwealth states would not swear an oath of allegiance to the British Monarch.
    • The  Nehru    Formula    changed    the    British Commonwealth of Nations from a relic of the British Empire to a cooperative association of free and sovereign nations which were united not only by their colonial past.
    • So it became the Commonwealth of Nations rather than the British Commonwealth of Nations.
    • The Nehru Formula resulted in the expansion in the membership for it allowed non-British colonies to become members.
    • Most of the members have a shared past of having been once subjects of the British Empire, share common heritage in language (English), culture, law and education.
    • The Commonwealth is a voluntary organisation.
    • It has no Charter and its membership is entirely voluntary.
    • Only independent countries can be members of the Commonwealth.
    • Dependent  countries  that  are  linked  to  member countries are eligible for assistance.
    • Members   contribute   to   the   Commonwealth’s development funds.
    • Heads of governments, ministers responsible for health, law, finance, science, women affairs and youths meet regularly to consult.
    • The work of the Commonwealth is done through cooperation at three levels:

    -     Working together in international forums to advance causes of particular concern to the association.

    -     Learning from each other through their regular meetings.

    -     Sharing skills and training facilities.

    Aims of the  Commonwealth

    • To fight to end racism, racial and social domination, and monitoring the rule of law.
    • To   promote   sustainable   economic   and   social development through technical cooperation.
    • To campaign for democracy.
    • To observe general elections and to give legal and technical help to those holding elections.
    • To remove poverty, ignorance, disease and raising the standards of living.
    • To foster human equality and dignity.
    • To promote tolerance, combat injustice.
    • To promote international cooperation in order to remove the causes of war.

    Commonwealth membership

    • Commonwealth states differ in race, colour, creed and political ideology.
    • Some nations are industrialised and others are poor and agricultural.
    • Some  nations  are  democracies  and  others  are dictatorships.
    • Some are capitalist and others socialist.
    • The  Commonwealth   members   include:   India, Canada, Pakistan, Namibia, Singapore, Malaysia, Mozambique, Tanzania,    Bangladesh,    Britain, Lesotho, Swaziland, Sri Lanka and Ghana.
    • Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth due to differences over the land reform programme.

    Criteria  for Commonwealth membership

    • Compliance with Commonwealth values, principles and priorities.
    • Acceptance  of    Commonwealth    norms    and conventions, e.g. the use of English as a common language at meetings.
    • Having a constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member.

    The  Head  of the  Commonwealth

    • Sixteen  independent    states    (e.g.    Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Canada, Fiji Islands, Grenada, Jamaica,  Mauritius,  New  Zealand,  Papua  New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago etc.) recognise the British Monarch as their head of state.
    • The queen/King has the following roles as Head of the Commonwealth:

    -     To   hold   discussions   with   Commonwealth leaders in the national capital centres.

    -     To visit the host countries during each summit and meeting the leaders.

    -     Making state visits to all commonwealth states.

    -     Delivering Commonwealth Day Broadcast.

    -     Being present at other Commonwealth Day events.

    Organs  of the  Commonwealth

    The most important organs are:

    • Commonwealth Secretariat
    • Fund for Technical Co-operation
    • Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
    • Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group

    The  Commonwealth Secretariat

    • Established in 1965.
    • Before its establishment, the affairs and meetings of its Heads of State were administered by the British Government through the Commonwealth relations office in the Whitehall.
    • It is headed by a Secretary General chosen by heads of government and state.
    • It has over 300 staff members.
    • Its headquarters is in London.
    • The work of the Secretariat includes:

    -     Promoting    consultation    and    cooperation among the member states.

    -     Organising special training programmes.

    -     Promoting the use of science and technology.

    -     Advising  member  states  on  economic  and legal matters.

    -     Producing  programmes  to  build  capacity  in health and education.

    -     Helping member states to reform their public sectors.

    -     Playing a role in preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution.

    The  Human Rights Unit

    • The  Human  Rights  Unit  reports  directly  to  the Deputy Secretary-General.
    • Its work is to:

    -     Integrate  human  rights  activities  across  all divisions of the Secretariat.

    -     Develop  programmes  aimed  at  supporting the Commonwealth’s commitment to the promotion of human rights.

    -     Publish literature on human rights.

    -     Cooperate   with   other   non-Commonwealth governments, NGOs and UN human rights systems.

    The  Commonwealth of Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM)

    • Attended by Commonwealth Heads of Government i.e. Presidents/Prime Ministers.
    • Meets once in two years
    • Zimbabwe hosted CHOGM in 1991.
    • The Head of State of the host country chairs the meeting.
    • During meetings, the leaders:

    -     Review      Commonwealth      and      global developments.

    -     Decide on new policies and programmes.


    Work of the  Commonwealth

    Political work

    • The Commonwealth strives to promote democracy and human rights.
    • It supports member states whose territorial integrity is threatened.
    • It fights against racism, e.g. in Zimbabwe during the colonial era and South Africa during the apartheid era.
    • CHOGM was instrumental in imposing economic sanctions on South Africa during the apartheid era.
    • Facilitated the Lancaster House Conference which ended the Second Chimurenga in Zimbabwe.
    • It  can  suspend  member  states  that  violate  its principles.
    • It observes general elections so that votes are not rigged.
    • In the 2000 general elections it sent observers to Zimbabwe.
    • Members cooperate on defence issues.

    Economic work

    • It helps  member  states  to  reduce  rural  poverty, to improve food security and advance rural development.
    • It sends economic experts to advise governments on economic policies.
    • It carries out research on agriculture and makes its findings public.
    • It  sends  humanitarian  aid  like  food  to  member states.
    • It fosters trade links.
    • Provides technical assistance.

    Social work

    • It strives  to  promote  education  and  health  e.g. it offers scholarships for studies at tertiary and university levels.
    • It  organises  Commonwealth  Games,  every  four years.
    • The games help to develop a culture of tolerance, acceptance, and    respect    of    one    another, and understanding of people from different backgrounds.

    The  Commonwealth in the  new millennium: Challenges

    • Major challenges for the Commonwealth in the new millennium:

    -     Managing  problems  that  may  come  with diversity.

    -     Managing the globalisation of the international economy.

    • Globalisation refers  to  the  idea  of  bringing  all the countries of the world close together through improved and better means of communication.
    • Diversity  is  pluralism  and  is  often  taken  as  a positive phenomenon:

    -     Ethnic, cultural and religious differences can be exploited and cause violence or division.

    -     Between 1989 and 1992, 79 of the 82 conflicts were intra-state in nature and linked to ethnic or religious differences. Examples of these are Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Rwanda.

    • The Commonwealth’s commitment to the pursuit of unity in diversity makes it a world example in the management of diversity:

    -     Globalisation has generated new opportunities for creating wealth.

    -     Globalisation     has     totally     marginalised developing countries.

    • The challenge is to find ways of empowering the less privileged countries so that they benefit from the globalisation process.
    • The  other   challenges   are   poverty   alleviation, reduction of the debt burden, disease eradication and environmental management.
    • Apartheid in South Africa from 1948 was opposed by the six coloured members of the Commonwealth: India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Ghana and Sri Lanka. They wanted South Africa to be expelled but the other five white dominions wanted it in.
    • The six coloured members threatened to leave if South Africa was allowed to stay on. South Africa then resigned.
    • When Ian Smith declared UDI in 1965, Rhodesia was not expelled from the Commonwealth. Some countries wanted Britain to use military force against Ian Smith but Britain refused.
    • Britain lost its military mastery. It cannot defend its dominions like Australia and New Zealand which are far away.
    • Australia  and  New  Zealand  formed  a  mutual defence treaty with the USA.
    • Other members have formed alliances with non- commonwealth members, e.g. Canada has closer trade ties with the USA. Australia has closer ties with Japan than Britain. India has closer trade links with Russia than Britain.

    The  Commonwealth – an  assessment


    • It cannot deal with cases of human rights violations and dictatorships, e.g. Malawi under Banda, Uganda under Idi Amin.
    • The Commonwealth has no means to deal with a country that violates its principles. It can only suspend the country and wait for the country to stop its violations.  A country can decide to leave the association, e.g. South Africa in 1960, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
    • Its major  weakness  is  its  reliance  on  voluntary contributions from member states; its operations can be paralysed when members default in their payments.
    • There are divisions along racial lines – it has failed to eradicate racism.


    • Politically,  the   Commonwealth   succeeded   in contributing towards ending colonialism (but racism is still a challenge.)
    • It promotes democracy.
    • Provides a platform for the discussion on political, social, economic and technical issues.
    • It  sends   observers   during   parliamentary   and presidential elections in member states. This helps in reducing vote rigging and bringing credibility to the elections.
    • Under the  Commonwealth  Fund  for  Technical Cooperation, the Commonwealth has mounted hundreds of workshops, seminars,   and trained thousands of people.
    • Commonwealth Games have been very popular.
    • The Games have also helped to enhance cooperation among member states.
    • Has availed scholarships to deserving students.