The Latter Twentieth Century
In the latter part of the twentieth century, the RCS became a centre for the exchange of ideas and provided a platform for a number of notable African leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Desmond Tutu. Over the years, the role of the RCS has evolved to meet the changing nature of the Commonwealth and the needs of its supporters.
In its past, the Commonwealth evolved out of Britain’s imperial past over a period of many years, largely as a result of decolonization, the effects of two world wars and changing patterns of international relations. Altering from an empire based on inequality of race and economic opportunity it has changed into a voluntary equal partnership concerned increasingly with the attainment of a new and more just economic order in the world as a whole. What makes the Commonwealth of today so useful is the ease and informality with which, from Heads of Government downwards, its people communicate through a common and working language against a shared administrative, legal and educational background.
The Modern Commonwealth
The modern Commonwealth today helps to advance democracy, human rights, sustainable economic and social development and many other endeavours. It is built on its shared history to become a vibrant and growing association and unique family of 52 member countries around the world sharing many common interests. As a multiracial association of states, all equal and sovereign, it is a world away from the handful of British Dominions which were the first Commonwealth members. From Africa to India, from Pacific shores to the Caribbean, the Commonwealth’s 1.6 billion people make up a quarter of the world’s population.
In 1867, Canada became the first colony to be transformed into a self-governing ‘Dominion’; a status which came to imply equality with Britain. In Australia in 1884, Lord Rosebery, a British politician, was the first to call this changing empire a ‘Commonwealth of Nations’. In turn, other parts of the empire followed suit: Australia became a Dominion in 1900, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1921.
Contribution of the Dominions
The important contribution of the Dominions to the First World War led to their separate signatures on the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and individual membership of the League of Nations. With a new-found sense of nationhood, the desire among the Dominions for constitutional definition increased. What was the nature of the British Commonwealth to be? Dominion leaders resumed their conferences begun in 1887 and agreed to meet every four years. At the Imperial Conference of 1926, prime ministers adopted the Balfour Report which defined the Dominions as:
…autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
This definition was adopted into British law in 1931 as the Statute of Westminster. It was adopted immediately in Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland (which joined Canada in 1949) and South Africa. Australia and New Zealand adopted the Statute in 1942 and 1947, respectively.
The Unofficial Commonwealth
Meanwhile, many groups linking professions and institutions among the Dominions began to flourish, laying the foundation stones for today’s ‘unofficial Commonwealth’ of professional associations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In 1911, the forerunner of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was established, followed in 1913 by the Universities Bureau of the British Empire (now the Association of Commonwealth Universities). In 1930, the first Empire (later Commonwealth) Games were held.
The Second World War and its aftermath changed the face the modern world forever. It also changed the nature of the British Commonwealth, marking its transition to a multiracial association of sovereign and equal states. That process began with India and Pakistan’s’ independence in 1947. Over the next five decades a number of milestones followed, reshaping the Commonwealth into its present form.
Foremost among these milestones was the London Declaration in 1949. With India’s desire to become a republic yet remain in the Commonwealth, the principle of Commonwealth membership had to be rethought. Would it remain based on a ‘common allegiance to the Crown’ as stated in the Balfour Report? A conference of Commonwealth prime ministers in 1949 revised this criterion and decided to welcome India as the Commonwealth’s first republican member. They all agree, however, to recognize King George VI as the ‘symbol of their free association and thus Head of the Commonwealth’. At the same time, the word ‘British’ was dropped from the association’s title to reflect the Commonwealth’s new reality. Lester Pearson, a Canadian prime minister, later reflected:
“Had we been unable to solve the problem of India’s admission as a republic, we would not have the Commonwealth we have today with all the new members from Asia and Africa. Because of the solution we found, however, which seemed very sensible at the time, we did break our institutional bond within the Commonwealth, the monarchy. This meant that only self interest would hold the new Commonwealth together.”
Racial Equality and National Sovereignty
Committed to racial equality and national sovereignty, the Commonwealth became a natural association of choice for many new nations emerging out of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Ghana achieved independence in 1957 and became the first majority-ruled African member. From 1960 onwards, the Commonwealth expanded rapidly with new members from Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Today, 32 members are republics and five have national monarchies of their own (Brunei Darussalam, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga). Sixteen are constitutional monarchies which recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State. All, however, accept the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. This is purely a symbolic position, and it does not give her any political or ruling power over any Commonwealth members. The Queen sends a Commonwealth Day message which is widely publicized on Commonwealth Day (the second Monday in March). Every year, on this date, people all over the world celebrate the special partnership of nations, peoples and ideals of which they all live by. In 2012, her message stated:
"The Commonwealth offers a pathway for this greater understanding and the opportunity to expand upon our shared experiences in a wider world. A world in which paths to mutual respect and common cause may also be explored and, which can draw us together, stronger and better than before.”
The Commonwealth’s principled opposition to all forms of racism, and especially apartheid, led to the withdrawal of South Africa in 1961. In 1994, following the end of apartheid and the establishment of a non-racial government, South Africa rejoined the association. In the mid-1960s the Commonwealth also kept up pressure on the rebel white minority government in Rhodesia and helped train some 4,500 Zimbabweans in the professional skills they would need on the day of majority rule.
In 1965, another milestone was reached when Commonwealth leaders established the Commonwealth Secretariat in London to be the association’s own independent civil service, headed by a Commonwealth Secretary-General. A year on, the Commonwealth Foundation was launched to assist the work of the many Commonwealth professional associations and later NGOs.
The first Commonwealth Secretary-General was Arnold Smith, a former Canadian diplomat. He served for ten years and was succeeded by Sir Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal from Guyana. In 1990, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a senior diplomat from Nigeria, became the third and current office holder is Kamalesh Sharma from India.
Principles and Co-operation
Two further milestones occurred in 1971. First, leaders adopted the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles which gave the association a formal code of ethics, and committed members to improving human rights and seeking racial and economic justice. Second, they established the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC). Based on the concept of mutualism, the CFTC was among the first to advance the idea of technical co-operation among developing countries.
For the Commonwealth, apart from the successful birth of Zimbabwe and the continuing struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the 1908s was the decade of Expert Group reports. Commissioned by the Secretary-General, these reports focused world attention on important issues of the day including the North-South dialogue (1982) and the vulnerabilities of small states (1985). Successive Commonwealth summits also focused world attention on topical and sometimes controversial issues.
A New Century
In 1991, the Harare Commonwealth Declaration set the association firmly on a new course for a new century: that of promoting democracy and good government, human rights and the rule of law, and sustainable economic and social development. As part of the Harare priorities, the Commonwealth provides assistance to countries in transition to democracy by helping to draft legislation, review and amend electoral procedures and otherwise create the framework for democracy to take root. Between 1990 and mid-1996, the Commonwealth observed some 18 elections or referendums to further this work.
At their 1995 summit in New Zealand, leaders adopted the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Program to give practical expression to the Harare principles, particularly democracy, development and consensus-building. They agreed on practical steps to address serious and persistent violations of these principles and established a mechanism – a Ministerial Action Group of Foreign Ministers – to carry this forward. In that context, they took the unprecedented step of suspending Nigeria’s membership.
The Commonwealth Today
Today the Commonwealth continues to be an active force in global affairs, helping to build consensus around the world. It manages a Joint Commonwealth Office in New York City in order that small member countries can afford to have permanent missions to the United Nations. Under Commonwealth auspices, the Iwokrama International Rainforest Program in Guyana was launched to develop sustainable use of the world’s vanishing rainforests. In 1996, the Commonwealth Africa Investment Fund was created to channel investment to 19 member countries in Africa. It is the first in a series of regional funds to be launched under the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative.
Today, as yesterday, the Commonwealth responds to the needs of its members and the challenges of tomorrow. From a club of former colonies, it has grown into a modern international association in tune with the times – and never lost its history of friendship.
The Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada believes that the Commonwealth is an important influence for good in the world. The value of this community, almost one-third of the world’s population, lies in its great diversity of races, cultures, creeds and political beliefs, and in its ability to communicate and act constructively for peaceful ends. In this process contacts among the young are a vital element in creating understanding and tolerance between different peoples and countries.