FEATURE: The Commonwealth

On November 29, 2009 Rwanda became the 54th member of the Commonwealth. It’s the second of the two countries to join it without having been former British Colonies. SundayMag’s LAURA KYOMYA takes us through the Commonwealth’s history and meaning.

On November 29, 2009 Rwanda became the 54th member of the Commonwealth. It’s the second of the two countries to join it without having been former British Colonies. SundayMag’s LAURA KYOMYA takes us through the Commonwealth’s history and meaning.

The Commonwealth of Nations often referred to as the Commonwealth is an intergovernmental organization that now consists of fifty four independent member states.

The organization is sixty years old but the idea took root way back in the 19th century.

As the British began the process of decolonization and the creation of independent states, there arose a need to create an organization of countries formerly part of the Empire. 

In 1867 Canada became the first colony to be transformed into a self governing entity;  this was a new constituted status which implied equality with Britain.

Later, other countries joined. Austria in1901, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1922.

The empire was gradually changing and in 1884, Lord Rosebury, a British politician, described the change as a ‘Commonwealth of Nations’.

All colonies that existed at the time participated in the First World War as separate entities and they became member states of the League of Nations (currently the United Nations).

After the First World War the states began seeking a new constitutional definition and reshaping their relationship with Britain.

In 1926 at the Imperial Conference, the Prime Ministers for the participating countries defined the dominions as autonomous communities within the British Empire.  

The new constitution outlined that states were equal and no single state was subordinate to another in any aspect of either their domestic or external affairs though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’.

In 1931, the British Commonwealth was founded under the stature of Westminster with five initial states, the United Kingdom, Canada, The Irish Free State, Newfoundland, and the union of South Africa.  

From the very start, UK was the most dominant force in the Commonwealth which was called the ‘British commonwealth of Nations’.

In April 1949 following the London Declaration, the word ‘British’ was dropped from the title ‘Commonwealth’ to reflect its change in nature.

The declaration modified the requirement that member states must view the Monarchy as their head to imply that countries recognize the monarchy as their leader of the common wealth.  

In 1965 an office called the Commonwealth Secretariat was set up to run the Commonwealth. However the UK remained the most dominant power giving directives through various offices.

The Commonwealth Secretariat chaired by the Secretary General has its headquarters in Marlborough House in London and is composed of 320 staff members from the member states. 

The Secretary General is appointed by the Heads of Government of member states and the elected person serves for two to four years’ term.    

The organization operates within a framework of common values and goals which include the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance, the rule of law and individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace.

The Commonwealth is not a political union but an intergovernmental organization where countries with diverse social, political and economic backgrounds are regarded equal in status.

The organization is currently headed by the Queen of England, Elizabeth the 2nd, since the 6th of February 1952.
The Commonwealth of Nations supports the Commonwealth games, a sporting event held every four years for member countries. 

Since the organization is free to suspend any member state that fails to abide by its terms, Fiji islands was suspended from the organization on September 1, 2009 while Zimbabwe was suspended in 2005.

Although membership required a state to have been a former dependency of the United Kingdom, in 1995 former Portuguese colony Mozambique joined under special circumstance due to its willingness to support the commonwealth’s fight against apartheid in South Africa.

On November 29, 2009, Rwanda was accepted in the Commonwealth becoming second to Mozambique as a member that was not formerly a colony of Britain. It’s now the 54th and latest member of the organization.

Of the fifty four member states, thirty three like India are republics. Five such as Brunei Darussalam have their own monarchies and sixteen are constitutional monarchies with the sovereign of the United Kingdom as their Head of State.

Commonwealth population               
The population of the fifty four Commonwealth member states exceeds 2 billion, approximately 30 % of the world population. However, it should be noted that India is responsible for the biggest commonwealth population.

Advantages of being a member of the Commonwealth
The advantages are definitely many. Among them is economic independence, freedom of trade with all the countries across the world, countries can also enter into trade agreements with other countries as a country chooses and thus there is trade facilitation through the enhancement of competitiveness in products and services. 

There are progressive reforms in security and justice; member states get protection and support during times of crisis from the Commonwealth. The support can be during times of war, famine, floods and so many other areas that might need any kind of intervention by the organization.

A citizen from a member state is a national in any Commonwealth country and has an advantage of becoming a free citizen in the US without paying taxes to the US Government.

The Commonwealth Day is celebrated every second Monday of March; each year carries a different theme and each country can celebrate it the way it chooses.

Commonwealth member states;
Antigua and Barbuda, Austria, The Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica Fiji islands, the Gambia, Grenada, Ghana, and Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya ,Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique ,Namibia, New Zealand ,Nigeria ,Pakistan Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, St Kitts and Nevis ,St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenadines, Samoa Seychelles, Sierra Leone Singapore, Solomon islands and Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tonga ,Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, Vanuatu and Zambia.