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Question 32. The Commonwealth. Why is it so popular?

The Commonwealth

The modern Commonwealth comprises nearly one-third of the world’s countries and its combined population of 1.7 billion people account for a quarter of the world’s inhabitants. The 54 countries represent some of the richest and some of the poorest in the world, as well as some of the biggest and the smallest.

The sovereign Commonwealth nations are: Great Britain, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria (suspended in 1995), Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Vanuatu, Western Samoa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Union (now Republic) of South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, but rejoined in 1994. Pakistan left the Commonwealth in 1972, but became a member again in 1989. Fiji withdrew in 1987. The Republic of Ireland is associated with the Commonwealth for commercial purposes but is not a member.

What is the Commonwealth and what does it stand for?

The Commonwealth was established by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. It proclaimed the full equality of the British Dominions with the United Kingdom.

The 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles describes the Commonwealth as a 'voluntary association of independent sovereign states, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace.'

With their common heritage in language, culture, law and education (left behind as a legacy of the British Empire), Commonwealth countries are able to work together in an atmosphere of understanding and trust. A distinguishing feature of Commonwealth activity is the mix between the ‘official’ (governmental) and ‘unofficial’ (civil society groups and organisations). Unlike the United Nations, the Commonwealth has no charter.

The Commonwealth has no official policymaking body, and the only formal political consultations among the member governments are the periodic meetings of their prime ministers to discuss common problems.

Relations between Britain and the other Commonwealth countries are maintained through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and the foreign offices of the individual nations. Member countries exchange high commissioners whose status is equivalent to that of ambassadors.

Queen Elisabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth.

Shared Values

The 54 Commonwealth member states include people of different races and origins, representing every stage of economic and social development and comprising various traditions and institutions. The special strength of this diverse association of nations lies in its shared heritage of language, culture and the rule of law which has grown out of its common historical connections. The result is a bond of beliefs in fundamental political values. Foremost among these is the Commonwealth's commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and good government.

All the members of the Commonwealth tackle challenges and problems together. These include the need to promote sustainable economic and social development; to alleviate poverty; to provide universal access to education; to protect the environment; to combat criminal activities such as drug trafficking and money laundering; to fight communicable diseases; and to support the United Nations and other international institutions in the search for peace and stability in the world.

At the heart of the consultation process, Commonwealth Heads of Government meet every two years to review progress and agree initiatives to address particular needs. Ministers from Commonwealth countries also meet regularly to review developments in specific fields, including education, finance, justice, health and youth affairs.

Much of the strength of the Commonwealth stems from the shared knowledge and exchanges made through long-established professional associations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and informal links. These include teacher training schemes; legal, scientific and other professional co-operation; youth exchanges; distance education; environmental projects; development agency activities; and shared sports (see the Commonwealth Games) and arts festivals.

The United Kingdom plays a leading role in the Commonwealth. It is host to the Commonwealth Secretariat (it was established in 1965 and now provides a clearinghouse for information of common concern to member countries and assists existing agencies in promoting Commonwealth cooperation) and to many Commonwealth-wide non-governmental associations, institutions and societies. It takes a keen part in consultation and co-operation. The United Kingdom contributes funds to developing Commonwealth countries. Over half of the UK's bilateral aid goes to developing countries in the Commonwealth. This is provided as financial, technical and educational assistance.

The Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Games still reflect the spirit of friendliness in which they were conceived over 100 years ago. In 1891, the Reverend Astley Cooper proposed a festival 'to draw closer the ties between the Nations of the Empire'. Since then, vital ingredients of unity, friendship and goodwill have been passed down through the decades. The Games are held every four years and are open to amateur competitors from throughout the Commonwealth. They seek to differ from the Olympics, in that competition is between individuals, not between countries. The Games always include athletics and swimming, and the host country chooses at least eight other sports from: archery; badminton; bowls; boxing; canoeing; cycling; fencing; gymnastics; judo; rowing; shooting; squash; table tennis; tennis; ten pin bowling; triathlon; weightlifting; wrestling; yachting. The host country also selects one or more team sports.

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