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Commonwealth of Nations

Commonwealth of Nations

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Commonwealth of Nations

Commonwealth of Nations, the international organization of sovereign states and dependencies sharing historic links with the United Kingdom and professing the same contemporary values. The term commonwealth has radical connotations in English constitutional history going back to the 17th century. It denoted the duty of all citizens to contribute to the welfare of the whole. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 the usage was widely applied to the British Empire, as propagandized by Lionel Curtis in The British Commonwealth of Nations (1915). The ideal of British nations devoted to a common weal was assumed to have a special relevance to the self-governing dominions of Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa, and the United Kingdom; as white (or white-dominated) societies, the Commonwealth had a clear racial identity.

Commonwealth of Nations

The newly formed Irish Free State became a Commonwealth member in 1922, with the right of separate representation at Imperial Conferences. The Commonwealth of Nations was given a formal and constitutional definition at the 1926 Imperial Conference, including complete legislative autonomy for component parts, incorporated in the Statute of Westminster in 1931. A common link through the Crown was critical to conceptions of Commonwealth unity in the inter-war years. However, when the Irish Free State passed legislation in 1936 extruding the monarch from its internal constitutional arrangements, yet was not evicted from the Commonwealth, the first signs emerged of a more flexible, eclectic approach to the association.

In 1947 India and Pakistan gained independence as dominions, including membership of the Commonwealth. These countries were accepted as continuing members of the latter even when they each subsequently adopted republican status (although the Irish Free State left what still smacked of a British Commonwealth of Nations when it became a full republic in 1949). The association henceforth was less uniformly white, but the subsequent reluctance to accept prospective independent African nations on a par with the founding members indicated it was still not genuinely multiracial. This changed after the entry of Malaysia and Ghana into the Commonwealth during 1957, although one consequence of true multiracialism was the departure of South Africa from the organization in 1961.

Size and accompanying resources were also considered as constraints on admission. After the acceptance of Cyprus in 1961, however, the way was eventually open for even very small island-states in the Caribbean and Pacific regions. As membership rose rapidly at the climax of decolonization in the mid-1960s, the Commonwealth ceased altogether to be distinctively British in character and leadership. The Commonwealth Secretariat (established 1965) was not an initiative of the UK government, though the greater commitment to the Commonwealth of Queen Elizabeth II was reflected when she put Marlborough House in London at the disposal of the Secretariat as its permanent headquarters.

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Biennial meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGMs) emerged as the chief high-level instrument of the post-imperial Commonwealth, epitomizing the primary goal of cooperation between member states. During the 1970s and 1980s differences over the economics of North-South relations, and approaches to apartheid in South Africa caused dissension and limited joint action. After the Harare Declaration (CHOGM, 1991) a fresh focus in Commonwealth affairs emerged on human rights, democratization, and good governance; this was reinforced by the renewed membership of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994. The suspension of member states held to be in breach of the new criteria (Nigeria, 1995-1999, Pakistan, 1999-2004 and again from 2007, Fiji, 2000-2001 and again from 2006, and Zimbabwe, between 2002 and 2003, when the country left the Commonwealth) marked a break with the consensual tradition that had always hampered Commonwealth collective action. More recently the record of member governments in consistently applying available sanctions to those held to be in disregard of the rules has been patchy.

The Commonwealth of Nations is today a large organization of 53 sovereign states and still attracts new applicants. A precedent was set with the entry of Mozambique (1995), a state with no previous constitutional (ex-colonial) link with the United Kingdom. At present, the head of state of 16 member countries is the British sovereign, 5 members have their own monarchs, and 32 are republics. All members recognize Elizabeth II as head of the association, although such recognition does not automatically extend to her successor. The full list of members as of November 2007 was: the United Kingdom, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji (currently suspended) The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan (currently suspended), Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vanuatu, and Zambia.

Commonwealth of Nations

Reviewed By:
Robert F. Holland


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