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Historical Background

A 2007 Commonwealth report on membership made the important point that ‘we cannot withdraw the Commonwealth from the historical context in which it was born. We are not tied down by it, but we must respect it’.  

That part of the report which gave an historical background of the Commonwealth follows.

                        World’s oldest political association of sovereign states


Viewed in this context, the Commonwealth may be recognized as the

world’s oldest political association of sovereign states. Its origins are

traceable to 1869–1870 when representatives from self-governing colonies

met unofficially to demand consultative arrangements. The first Colonial

Conference was convened in 1887 at the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden

Jubilee. The decision was made in 1907 to hold regular meetings confined

to Prime Ministers. Membership of these meetings was accorded to those

countries that had attained ‘responsible government’ on the British

parliamentary model.

The name ‘Commonwealth’ came to be applied to an association unique

in its modes of operation and in the width and depth of its voluntary,

unofficial, and non-political networks. ‘Commonwealth’ originally meant

nation-state and ‘Commonwealth of Nations’, as used from the mid-19th

Century, signified a family of self-governing, i.e. politically independent,

countries. The term ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ was used formally

from 1921 to 1948 and was subsequently abbreviated to ‘the


Independence of members

The regular conferences began as intimate gatherings of six member

countries—Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and

South Africa. New members were soon added and definitions of their

status were demanded. India, although not yet self-governing, was invited

to send representatives from 1917. Southern Ireland, as the Irish Free

State, was added in 1922. South Africa’s demand for a declaration of its

independence and an Irish compilation of ‘anomalies and anachronisms’

in its legal status were addressed by the formula agreed in 1926, which

defined the ‘position and mutual relation’ of the members as autonomous,

equal in status, owing common allegiance to the Crown, and freely


These principles were embodied in the preamble to the Statute of

Westminster (1931), which also declared that the Crown was the symbol

of the free association of the members. Equality and voluntary association

between independent states thus became fundamental principles of the


India's proposal

New members were increasingly added after the Second World War,

beginning with Asian nations—India and Pakistan in 1947 and Ceylon

(Sri Lanka) in 1948. When India, the largest member, adopted a

republican constitution, it sought to remain in the Commonwealth and

this was agreed by the existing members. The Declaration of London

(1949) provided that, in place of the sole remaining formal bond

of common allegiance to the Crown, the Republic of India accepted

The King as the symbol of the free association of the independent

member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth. Malaya

became a member in 1957 as the first national monarchy in the


Expansion came next from Africa. When Sudan and the Gold Coast

demanded independence, there was resistance to their becoming

Commonwealth members, especially from South Africa, and there was

talk of a ‘mezzanine status’ and a two-tier Commonwealth. Sudan,

geographically the largest African territory, became an independent

republic outside the Commonwealth in 1956. Advice that if the Gold

Coast was denied full membership, the rest of Africa would eschew the

Commonwealth, led to Ghana’s full membership in 1957. Nigeria, the

most populous African state, followed in 1960.

In the same year, the ‘wind of change’ induced an acceleration of the

pace of change as France, Belgium and Italy created new states in Africa

and the United Nations General Assembly called for the end of colonial

status. There were twelve African Commonwealth members by the end

of the 1960s, a decade that saw three other major landmarks.

Small states

First, Cyprus became independent in 1960, but there was resistance to

the idea of full membership for a population of only half-a-million in a

state guaranteed by Greece, Turkey, and Britain. It was realised that there

were many more small states in the wings and that if Cyprus became a full

member it could be the precedent for over thirty more potential members.

The Prime Ministers appointed a committee of senior officials to review

the matter. Their recommendation was that to deny full membership of

the Commonwealth to a country that qualified to be a member of the

United Nations would be ‘a frustration of much that the Commonwealth

stands for’. Cyprus joined in 1961 and was followed in 1962 by Jamaica

and Trinidad, and, later, by nine other Caribbean countries. In subsequent

years, small states would comprise the majority of the members.


Secondly, on the same day that Cyprus was welcomed to the 1961 Prime

Ministers’ Meetings, Dr. Verwoerd withdrew South Africa’s application

to emulate India and stay in as a republic. On the eve of the meetings,

Julius Nyerere had published a statement that soon-to-be-independent

Tanganyika might eschew a Commonwealth that included the apartheid

regime. Led by the Canadian Prime Minister, the leaders condemned the

South African policy of apartheid. The Republic of South Africa remained

out of the Commonwealth for thirty-three years.


The third landmark was the creation in 1965 of the Commonwealth

Secretariat, which was suggested by the leaders of new member-countries,

Ghana, Uganda, and Trinidad, and was dubbed by Milton Obote as the

Commonwealth’s ‘declaration of independence’ from Whitehall. The

Secretary-General was made responsible to the heads of government

collectively and took over responsibility for organizing the Commonwealth


The next round of new members came from the Pacific. Western Samoa

(independent since 1962), Fiji and Tonga (independent in 1970) attended

the Singapore Heads of Government Meeting (the first to be styled

CHOGM) in 1971. In Singapore, member countries also adopted the

Declaration of Commonwealth Principles.

Southern African issues

The first thirty years of the Secretariat’s life was dominated by the political

problems of Southern African—the illegal regime in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe,

South Africa’s occupation of South West Africa in defiance of UN

resolutions, and, above all, apartheid in the Republic of South Africa.

The resolution of these issues, assisted by considerable unified effort from

the Commonwealth, resulted in further enlargements of the membership.

Zimbabwe became a member after elections under Commonwealth

monitoring in 1980. Namibia became the fiftieth member in 1990,

bringing the Commonwealth to the same size as the first UN General

Assembly. South Africa returned after thirty-three years in 1994, following

its first multi-racial polls and the election of President Mandela.

In a notable new development, Cameroon (only a part of which had

once been under British rule) joined and attended the Auckland CHOGM

in 1995. The former German colony of Kamerun had been divided into

British and French Mandates, later UN Trust Territories. By referenda in

1961 the British Trust Territory of Northern Cameroons voted to join

Nigeria. Southern Cameroons chose to join the Republic of Cameroun

where it constituted two Anglophone north-western provinces that

accounted for about one-fifth of the total population, the remainder being

largely Francophone. Cameroon had applied to the 1993 Limassol

CHOGM, partly as an endeavour to placate secessionist movements in

the Anglophone provinces and also to project the country more widely

in the international community.

Heads of Government decided that Cameroon could be invited to the

1995 CHOGM provided that democratic reforms then underway met

the criteria of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration. A Commonwealth

mission headed by Dr Kamal Hossain of Bangladesh, Chairman of the

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, reported positively in July 1995.

The President of Cameroon was welcomed at the Auckland CHOGM,

where it was also decided to accept Mozambique into membership—the

first member that had never had a constitutional link with a

Commonwealth member.

Surrounded by member countries, Mozambique had come to be known

as a ‘cousin’ state of the Commonwealth. Its rail routes and ports were

vital to the trade of the land-locked Commonwealth members.

Independent Mozambique from 1975 had been a vital ally in Zimbabwe’s

freedom struggle. It sent observers to CHOGMs from 1987, the year

when the Commonwealth Special Fund for Mozambique was created to

furnish technical assistance. In 1995 President Mandela proposed that it

should be admitted ‘as an exceptional case’, and Mozambique was accepted

as the fifty-third member. At the same time, Heads of Government

requested the Secretary-General to establish the IGGCM to advise on

criteria for assessing future applications for membership.

New patterns of consultations  

The 1997 Edinburgh CHOGM established a new and wider pattern of

consultations. The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth addressed the

conference for the first time. The first Commonwealth Business Forum

met beforehand and created the Commonwealth Business Council. The

first Commonwealth Centre for civil society presentations (precursor of

later Commonwealth People’s Forums) met, as did the first

Commonwealth Youth Forum. This tri-sector pattern of consultations

between government, civil society, and business continues to evolve in

the 21st Century.

In 1997, Heads of Government also received and endorsed the IGGCM

report, which is the starting point for the discussions of CCM.

Five conclusions on membership



The above survey of the growth in membership suggests five conclusions

relevant to the discussions of the CCM:


                                   1. Growth of membership has been continuous and this has changed

the character of the association.

From a nucleus of five nations, which

had the character of an unwritten military alliance in the era of the two

world wars, the addition of the Asian, African, Caribbean, and Pacific

nations marked the transition to a unique multilateral association with a

predominance of small states and an emphasis on development and

poverty eradication.


2. There were always anomalies.

India, the largest member, attended

the conferences long before it became independent. Newfoundland, the

pioneer small state, attended Commonwealth Conferences but stayed

out of the League of Nations. The premiers of Southern Rhodesia and

Burma were invited as observers before their countries’ independence.

An association with a majority of republics has a monarch as symbolic


                           3. There was always resistance to new members but eventual  acceptance.

Some leaders in the early days strenuously opposed the idea of republics

in the Commonwealth. There was opposition to Ghana, to Cyprus and

the small states, and to Mozambique. But, after due consideration, positive

decisions were made in each case and led to the continuing growth and

strengthening of the organisation.


       4. There have been many comings and goings but countries that left have generally returned.

Newfoundland gave up self-government in 1933

and became a Canadian province in 1949. The Republic of Ireland left

in 1949. South Africa was out for thirty-three years, Pakistan for seventeen,

and Fiji for ten. Nigeria’s membership was suspended from 1995 to 1999.

Pakistan was suspended-from-Commonwealth-councils between 1999 and

2004 following a military coup, as was Fiji in 2000–2001 and, again, in

2006, and Sierra Leone in 1997.  

(Following the overthrow of the elected government of Tejjan Kabbah by a military council in

1997, CMAG suspended the ‘illegal regime’ in Sierra Leone from the Councils of the

Commonwealth. However, the Kabbah Government continued to be recognized by the

Commonwealth even while their leader was in exile. President Kabbah’s return to Freetown in

March 1998 brought an end to this anomalous situation.)

Zimbabwe quit the Commonwealth in December 2003 after being suspended from councils in March 2002.

There were also countries with historic constitutional links, which, after

gaining their independence from Britain, never joined the

Commonwealth—Burma (Myanmar), and, in the Red Sea/Middle East

region, Egypt and Sudan, Palestine and Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf States,

Aden (South Yemen) and British Somaliland (which became part of


      5. The Commonwealth is an association of peoples as well as states.

While the contemporary tri-sector pattern of business, civil society, and

youth forums dates only from the 1997 CHOGM, non-governmental

organizations are of very long standing. The press, parliamentary, and

universities associations pre-dated the First World War, and there were

Unofficial Commonwealth Relations Conferences held at five yearly

intervals between 1933 and 1959, following on from the Imperial

Conferences and Prime Ministers’ Meetings. In these consultations,

politicians, professionals, academics, military officers, and businessmen

debated Commonwealth and international affairs, and women began to

participate as delegates before they did in the political Commonwealth.

Since the creation of the Commonwealth Foundation in 1966, some thirty

new professional associations have been founded. With the widening of

the Foundation’s mandate in 1980, new organizations devoted to care

and welfare have been added and the Foundation has published groundbreaking

guidelines for non-governmental organization good practice.

After the creation of the Commonwealth Business Council, it has organized

 well-supported Business Forums, encouraged public/private partnerships,

and fostered training in corporate governance.

Regular civil society consultations on a regional basis are made before

CHOGMs, which are now preceded by a week of activities that include a

People’s Forum organised by the Foundation, Youth Forum, Human Rights

Forum, Business Forum, and inter-faith dialogues. The richness and

diversity of the tri-sector contributions make for a very significant part of

the Commonwealth’s uniqueness and contemporary attractiveness.



  [Source: Commonwealth Secretariat CommonwealthHeads of Government Meeting Kampala, Uganda, 23-25 November 2007Pre-CHOGM Foreign Ministers Provisional Agenda Item 2(iv) HGM(07)(FM)3  CHOGM Provisional Agenda Item 4 HGM(07)5 Membershipf] 
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