What is the point of the Commonwealth today?

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1. Uniting nations, dividing opinion

The Commonwealth encompasses almost a third of the world’s population, bringing together people of many faiths, races, languages and incomes. It is showcased through the Commonwealth Games every four years. Yet it is an institution which remains a mystery to many, polarising opinion as to its role and relevance.

Journalist Peter Oborne believes the Commonwealth represents a friendly network of nations, based on education, culture and history, which will continue to play a vital role. But for the Economist's James Astill, the Commonwealth is “a large and somewhat anomalous club, which devotes most of its energies to maintaining its strange existence”.

Commonwealth Day, an annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations, is held on the second Monday in March, with a multi-faith service in Westminster Abbey. But as the Commonwealth Games in Australia get underway, what does this organisation actually do? Is the Commonwealth merely a British consolation prize for the loss of the Empire, or does it have an important role to play in today’s geopolitical climate?

2. Emerging from Empire

The early 20th Century saw some colonies within the British Empire acquiring varying degrees of independence. A new constitutional definition of their relationship with one another was required.

The Statute of Westminster of 1931 defined the United Kingdom and the Dominions as ‘autonomous communities, equal in status, united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’.

The terms of the association were reformulated in the 1949 London Declaration. The word British was dropped from the Commonwealth's name, the allegiance to the crown removed from its statute, and it became an association for decolonised nations. The British monarch remained as a ‘symbol of their free association and as such Head of the Commonwealth’.

The member list has since grown to incorporate 53 nations, including some independent countries. Its two most recent additions, Mozambique and Rwanda, have no historical ties to the British Empire and there are more nations on the waiting list to join.

The Commonwealth cannot sanction member states by force, but when governments persistently violate Commonwealth principles, they can be suspended. This was the case with Zimbabwe in 2002 following allegations of rigged elections in the country. As membership is voluntary, countries can also withdraw from the association. The Gambia was the most recent example, withdrawing in 2013, describing the Commonwealth as a “neo-colonial institution”.

Previously devoid of a constitution, the Commonwealth adopted its charter in December 2012. This commits members to 16 core values of democracy, gender equality, sustainable development and international peace and security. Each member nation is considered equal regardless of size or wealth.

The relationship between the Commonwealth of Nations is acknowledged every four years with the Commonwealth Games, and every two years with meetings of political leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The Commonwealth Secretariat, based in London, works with member governments to deliver on the agreed priorities that emerge.

Commonwealth organisations work in diverse areas ranging from education to urban planning and meteorology, with observers often present at elections in an attempt to ensure fairness. On Commonwealth Day each year, the second Monday in March, the Queen broadcasts a message to all member nations.

3. The Commonwealth in numbers

The Commonwealth of Nations in numbers

¹ This figure covers from 1990, when Nauru first entered the Commonwealth Games.

4. An important role in the 21st Century

Journalist Peter Oborne argues the case for the Commonwealth:

“The Commonwealth is a way of nations staying in touch without binding formal obligations, but rather through goodwill, friendship and historical ties. It is not a formal group like NATO and allows instead for a relaxed and enriching meeting of minds and cultures.

The attraction of joining is that you don’t become part of a system of triumph states, like NATO, nor are you giving away sovereignty to a bureaucratic system, like the EU. The Commonwealth is a curiously gentle, civilised way of viewing the world. While there is no formal trade agreement, the Commonwealth enables prime ministers and trade ministers to meet informally, which provides positive side effects for trade.

The Commonwealth has very few sanctions, which in a curious way is an advantage. Any despot that emerges can be talked around gently, rather than threatened. I give the Commonwealth a lot of credit for helping end military rule in Pakistan in 2007 and it played a pivotal role in championing the boycott of apartheid South Africa.

I think it has a strong future. We are no longer in a world of warring empires. The world is more of a network system, where relationships of the kind that the Commonwealth promotes really matter. The Commonwealth fits in better with the 21st Century than the EU, which has reached the end of its time.

If the 21st Century is not to repeat the successive bloodbaths of the 20th Century, then the system of the Commonwealth will play an important role as it has no army, but instead relies on friendship and understanding.”

5. A tangled and ineffective bureaucracy

James Astill, Washington correspondent of The Economist, questions the institution's purpose:

“The Commonwealth has hardly any geopolitical role or relevance. It is a large and somewhat anomalous club, which devotes most of its energies to maintaining its strange existence. Being a former member of the British Empire is useful, as there is evidence that former colonies are more likely to trade with each other than with other countries.

But the Commonwealth does very little to reinforce this. What is its purpose? Many citizens of Commonwealth countries don’t really know what it does or who its members are. A quarter of Jamaicans, when asked, said they thought Barack Obama was head of the Commonwealth.

Otherwise, the club runs a good scholarship programme, development projects for its poorest members and a tangled and ineffective bureaucracy, including at least 70 different organisations, which appears to exist chiefly to provide junkets for a well-heeled Commonwealth elite.

More lamentable is the club’s record on enforcing its members’ commitment to human rights and the rule of law, for example, when Sri Lanka’s abusive regime was permitted to host last year’s biennial Commonwealth leaders meeting.

But I don’t really think there is a persuasive argument for disbanding the Commonwealth. It's a curiosity, which retains a clear and unfulfilled potential to boost trade among its members. There is no reason to think the world would be better without it.”

6. A journey through the years

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William's 2012 tour of the Solomon Islands had echoes of the Queen's 1982 tour of the South Pacific. (Tim Graham/Chris Jackson/Mark Large/Getty Images)

The Queen visits Tonga in 1953 on her first Commonwealth tour as Monarch

A church minister greets the Queen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953 during Her Majesty's first Commonwealth tour. (Fox Photos/Hulton/Getty Images)

Separatist riots at the Queen's visit to Quebec in January 1964

There were separatist riots as the Queen visited Quebec in January 1964. (Keystone/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images)

The Queen preparing to present medals at the 1974 Commonwealth Games

The Queen prepares to present medals at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Serge Lemoine/Getty Images)

Prince Charles Visiting Papua New Guinea in 1984

Prince Charles dresses in a traditional costume on a 1984 visit to Papua New Guinea. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

The Queen embraces aboriginal culture, as Tjapukai Aborigines light a ceremonial fire near Cairns, Australia in March 2002, as part of her Golden Jubilee tour. (T. Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe gives a speech

Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe withdrew the country from the Commonwealth in 2003 following its suspension from the organisation. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistani opposition parties protest at their country's suspension from the Commonwealth

Opposition parties in Pakistan protest at the country's suspension from the Commonwealth in 2007. (Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

A local man shows devotion to Prince Philip in Tanna, Vanuatu in August 2010

A local man shows off photographs of Prince Philip in the South Pacific island of Tanna, Vanuatu where the Prince is believed to be a god. (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

Sir Chris Hoy during the launch of the Queen's Baton Relay

Sir Chris Hoy leads a procession of Commonwealth flags during the launch of the Queen's Baton Relay at Buckingham Palace on October 9, 2013. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)