Commonwealth of Nations: 'The club of the 21st Century'

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, 2011

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Commonwealth Day is being marked with an annual observance at Westminster Abbey in London. The BBC News website looks at the role of the organisation and hears the views of some readers.

In Diamond Jubilee year, the Queen celebrates 60 years as head of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth of Nations has been described by critics as merely a talking shop, raising questions about its effectiveness.

But with 54 members and counting, it seems the Commonwealth still has global resonance.

African countries such as Algeria, Madagascar and Sudan - as well as Yemen in the Middle East - have all applied to become members of the Commonwealth.

So why is membership considered by some to be such an attractive prospect?

The Commonwealth grants small countries greater access to network, and to raise matters of concern with their more influential fellow members.

Start Quote

Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General. Photo: Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

The Arab Spring was all about the hope that the whole region could live by the values the Commonwealth has been espousing for so long”

End Quote Kamalesh Sharma Commonwealth Secretary-General

As news website reader Mohammed al-Sharif from Sanaa says: "Yemen needs a lot of help. We have been through a civil war and we have economic problems.

"We have so many hopes that our president will lead us to a better future. But we cannot do anything without outside help."

In 2009, Rwanda became the latest country to join the Commonwealth.

Despite its brutal recent history, it was admitted into the Commonwealth because of its work towards democracy and the fact that the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Tanzania are members.

Josh from Kigali in Rwanda says: "It is beneficial to join different blocs because it widens opportunities, and encourages cultural exchange and trade."

The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, says it has played a major role in imparting its values of good governance, democracy and development around the world.

"The fact that there is a lot of interest in the Commonwealth indicates that it really is the club of the 21st Century.

"There is something that the Commonwealth has been doing right.

"The Arab Spring was all about the hope that the whole region could live by the values the Commonwealth has been espousing for so long."

He adds that the principles instilled by the Commonwealth in its members have been recognised by observers.

"The Ibrahim Index of good governance in Africa is a very reputable one. The last ranking showed that out of 54 countries in Africa, in the first eight, seven were from the Commonwealth," says Mr Sharma.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma describes the work of the Commonwealth.

"This cannot be by accident. It is because of the Commonwealth's values that it becomes possible that institutions run better, elections are more credible and leaders are more conscious in their duties of leadership."

As the Commonwealth is a voluntary association with no formal constitutional framework, members work in the understanding that they fully commit to its values.

But the association's voluntary aspect, along with the fact that it cannot impose sanctions for non-compliance like other international blocs such as the UN and EU, have led to criticisms that it lacks bite.

The director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Prof Philip Murphy, said the Commonwealth was very important to small states, but questioned the means to impose its values on members.

"It tries to preserve good government, rule of law and democracy for unstable states and acts in everyone's interests. But whether it has the resources to hold states to Commonwealth values is a different matter," he said.


The Commonwealth does help nations within its family as well as states that have chosen to go it alone.

One former member of the Commonwealth is Zimbabwe, suspended in 2002 over human rights abuses.

But after the suspension was extended because of continuing violations, President Robert Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth altogether in the following year.


  • The modern Commonwealth began in 1949
  • It is home to over two billion people worldwide
  • There are 54 member countries
  • Rwanda is the newest member
  • Commonwealth Day is held every second Monday in March
  • The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting occurs every two years
  • The Commonwealth Secretariat implements decisions made by the heads of government
  • The Queen has attended every Commonwealth summit except in 1971

Despite this, the Commonwealth still works with organisations in Zimbabwe, and hopes that Zimbabwe will once again be a Commonwealth member.

"The Southern Africa Development Community is an interlocutor with Zimbabwe, and is trying to create the conditions where the next elections can take place in a secure and credible way," says Mr Sharma.

The Commonwealth is also involved in resolving the recent crisis in the Maldives after unrest led to the country's first democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Nasheed, stepping down.

The former Secretary-General, Sir Donald McKinnon, has been appointed as the Commonwealth's Special Envoy to the Maldives.

Sir Donald was secretary-general in 2000-08, at a time when democracy in the Maldives was in its infancy.

He has been tasked to talk to the political leaders in the country to help reach an agreement to restore democracy and ensure elections.

The Queen's role

Throughout her reign, the Queen has been Head of the Commonwealth in a position that has been far from simply ceremonial.

The Queen The Queen has missed only one Commonwealth summit

"The Queen has given her role some substance through Commonwealth Day, Christmas Day broadcasts, and her relationship with the Commonwealth Secretariat," says Prof Murphy.

"She has made a point of attending every Commonwealth summit meeting except 1971 when British Prime Minister Edward Heath advised her not to attend because of a row over Britain selling arms to South Africa.

"The Queen made it clear that she was upset that she could not go as she felt it was her duty to attend."

Reader Dennis Green in Brisbane, Australia, is full of praise for the Queen.

"Although there is a number of people who want Australia to become a republic, she is still highly regarded and respected.

"She represents an era of times gone by and yet people love her today."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    18.jeremy ross -" Mrs Windsor is the last link to our imperial past. When she dies, it is time we grow up, elect our head of state and liberate our ex colonies from the anachronism of Monarchy and the shadow of empire"

    Our ex-colonies don't need liberating, they are already independent States

    They are free to drop the Monarch as Head of State if they wish, as it looks like Jamaica might do

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Prefer the UK been associated with the Commonwealth rather than the EU which is an uncompetetive inward looking 'old cronies' club.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Britain needs strategic partnerships. The EU is without doubt the most important one and central to our future role in the world to any realist. The partnership with America is subservient as we see from Theresa May but strategically vital. The Commonwealth is in between and there is real value in wider strategic co-operation with more equal partners across the world on a more informal basis

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Does France have anything similar?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    It's an interesting mix of countries. It's surely a useful opener for smaller nations stood in the wings of the global stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I would rather be a member of the Commonwealth that the ruinous EU.

    It may be a talking shop, but isn't that what all politicians do anyway?

    The advantage of the Commonwealth is that no one member of group of members can dictate to any other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    17.The Deutsche
    What has been so good about the 21st century so far...and what makes you think it is going to get much better? As ever more institutions and conventions developed over many years by wiser generations ...are trashed and discarded by the current young generation which had no standards to live by, the world becomes a worse, chaotic place to live in. Happy Commonwealth Day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Mrs Windsor is the last link to our imperial past. When she dies, it is time we grow up, elect our head of state and liberate our ex colonies from the anachronism of Monarchy and the shadow of empire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    You brits and your monarchy and old colonialism. get rid of the commonwealth, ged rid of the monarchy and welcome to the 21st century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    More like a club of the 18th century. A queen/king is a sign of a primitive culture which is yet to embrace itself on equal terms for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    As a voluntary association of 54 members, the Commonwealth is trying to preserve the rule of law, good governance and democracy. Still there are so many issues it has to grapple with to make it a vibrant organization with more teeth. The plurality of cultures it represents is a resounding plus. But we should not forget human rights issues which have marred the development of some of the countries!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I think the commonwealth is extremely important to share diverse cultures and ideas. Closing the doors to countries who have different human rights laws such as gay rights would not help to bring the advanced thinking from countries such as ours into the more slowly developing countries. After all when the commonwealth was begun it was also illegal in the UK to be gay and we had the death penalty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Does anyone even care ?

    By the way, it may be worth mentioning that this so-called wonderful club still contains a lot of countries with the death penalty/prison sentences for being gay. It's a club I don't aspire to be part of - let us scrap it and drop our ties to these backward nations who abuse human rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I don't see any problem with the Commonwealth, it seems to bring nations together and have a positive impact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Resonance? Yep. About 29.1352 hz - that's the low B flat on a piano.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The Commonwealth is an aid grabbing, grievance mongering and thoroughly pointless organisation motivated by nothing more than anti western agitation. This was seen most clearly in the hysteria about South Africa during the 80s while tyrants like General Zia, Hastings Banda, Daniel Arap Moi and Milton Obote scolded Britain and claimed the moral high ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    What an oxymoron

    The wealth is not common

    An commoness is not wealth

    Just a traditional club

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Forgive my ignorance but why do the members of the Commonwealth accept the Head of State of one member to be permanent head of the commonwealth? Such an institution is fine but hardly an example of democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    So nice to see the Commonwealth flourishing! The critics will always slam it as a legacy of our wicked colonial past. The fact that it is actually growing in popularity is answer enough to them. The sporting and cultural links it provides are unprecedented. And it does of course promote democracy and freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Properly done the Commonwealth would make a viable alternative to the shambolic veto ridden talking shop known as the UN. Include any county that shows willing and extend membership by invitation only.


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