The Commonwealth of Nations
The Charter of the Commonwealth [PDF] has now been adopted by Commonwealth nations. The Charter is the first time the Commonwealth's values have been encapsulated in an enduring, stand-alone document and is a major outcome from Australia's current term as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office.
About the Commonwealth
The Commonwealth is a unique grouping of 53 developed and developing nations (with one member, Fiji, currently suspended) spread over every continent and ocean in the world. It is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states of many religions, races, languages and cultures. Most of its members are republics. Its 2 billion people account for approximately 30 per cent of the world's population.
The promotion of human rights and democratic norms is an essential part of the Commonwealth's mandate. The Commonwealth has played a positive role in promoting good governance among member countries, consistent with the principles in the Harare Declaration of 1991. The Secretary-General has deployed his Good Offices for Peace in support of conflict prevention and resolution in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Lesotho, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Fiji and Solomon Islands in recent years.
The Commonwealth has a well-recognised role in observing elections in Commonwealth countries and provides important assistance to member governments to enable them to implement recommendations made by observer groups.
The Commonwealth also assists member countries by developing, in consultation with them, best practice guidelines on administrative, judicial, regulatory and other matters; and responding to their requests for assistance with administrative reform in government and the reassessment of existing structures and systems.
In addition to the Commonwealth's activities in strengthening democratic processes and good governance, Australia has strongly supported an increased role for the Commonwealth in protecting human rights in member states, building on the Commonwealth's commitment to the rule of law. The shared common law traditions of most Commonwealth countries provide a sound basis for cooperation in legal and judicial assistance and capacity building. The Commonwealth supports activities, including strengthening the domestic human rights machinery of member states, the establishment of Ombudsmen's offices, workshops in such areas as criminal justice, administrative law and combating corruption, and implementation of international human rights conventions.
Key Commonwealth documents, including declarations, communiqués, statements and reports, speeches and strategic plans, can be found on the Commonwealth Secretariat website.
Australia is currently Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, a role it will hand over to Sri Lanka at the next CHOGM in November 2013.
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM)
Every two years, Commonwealth leaders meet at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – the highest consultative and policy-making mechanism of the Commonwealth – to discuss global and Commonwealth issues, and to agree on collective policies and initiatives. CHOGM was last held in Perth in 2011 and will next be held in Sri Lanka in November 2013.
Commonwealth Leaders traditionally take the opportunity of their biennial meetings to review global political and economic developments and consider reports from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Principles (CMAG) and the Ministerial Group on Small States. They give strategic guidance to the organisation and consider reports from a range of Commonwealth organisations and professional associations.
Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings also provide Commonwealth Leaders with a forum for informal exchanges and bilateral contact with restricted access for officials. For Australia, it gives us a substantive link and point of commonality with many countries with whom we otherwise have limited bilateral contact.
Commonwealth ministers from a range of portfolios meet between CHOGMs to consider specific issues relating to democracy, economics and development, women's affairs, youth, legal issues, health and education. These meetings are held in different Commonwealth countries each year and are chaired by the relevant minister from the host government.
2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Perth, 28-30 October 2011
The 2011 CHOGM was held in Perth, Western Australia, from 28 to 30 October 2011. It was preceded by the pre-CHOGM Commonwealth Foreign Ministers' Meeting held on 26 to 27 and 29 October and the Commonwealth and Developing Small States Meeting on 25 October, both chaired by then-Foreign Minister Rudd.
The theme for CHOGM 2011 was "Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience". This provided the context for discussions by heads of government on social, political, economic and environmental resilience.
See the CHOGM 2011 Communiqué
Heads also considered the recommendations of a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group on strengthening the Commonwealth.
Eminent Persons Group
The Eminent Persons Group was established at the request of Heads of Government In the Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles adopted at CHOGM 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago of independent experts with the goal of sharpening the impact, strengthening the networks, and raising the profile of the Commonwealth. In addition to being mandated with examining options for Commonwealth reform, the EPG, chaired by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was asked to review the format, frequency and focus of Commonwealth Ministerial meetings to ensure their continuing capacity to support the Commonwealth's values and principles, and provide the greatest possible addition of value and cost-effectiveness. Former Australian High Court Justice, the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG served as an independent expert member of the group.
After a number of meetings between July 2010 and July 2011, the EPG presented its report to leaders, 'A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform' at CHOGM 2011 in Perth, Australia. The report made 14 core recommendations including adoption of a Charter of Commonwealth Values; reform of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group; appointment of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights; reform of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
The Commonwealth´s response to the EPG recommendations were first considered by leaders at CHOGM and finalized following the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting and inter-sessional procedure in 2012. The full response to the EPG recommendations [PDF] can be found on the Commonwealth Secretariat website.
As current Chair-in-Office, Australia will continue to work with Commonwealth organisations and other members to ensure implementation of the EPG outcomes.
A key outcome from Perth CHOGM was agreement to finalise a Charter of Commonwealth values, as proposed by the EPG.
Following a process of national consultations, inter-sessional discussions and consideration by the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers at their meeting chaired by Senator Carr in September 2012, the Charter was formally approved by Commonwealth Leaders through a written procedure.
The Charter of the Commonwealth [PDF] is a significant achievement for the Commonwealth under Australia´s term as Chair-in-Office. It is the first time the values of the Commonwealth have been encapsulated in an enduring and consolidated document.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG)
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration is the most tangible expression of the Commonwealth's commitment to the fundamental democratic principles set out in the Harare Declaration of 1991.
It was established as a mechanism for the implementation of the measures set out in the Millbrook Plan of Action adopted by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1995.
Reacting to the execution of opposition figures by the then Nigerian military regime during the Auckland CHOGM in 1995, Heads of Government established CMAG and mandated it to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Harare Principles. The Millbrook Plan of Action set out a range of measures that CMAG might take in response to such serious or persistent violations. These range from quiet diplomacy and statements of concern to suspension from the Commonwealth.
CMAG members are the Foreign Ministers of eight Commonwealth countries appointed by CHOGM for two-year terms. The Commonwealth Chair-in-Office is also represented on CMAG. Current CMAG members are: Australia (Chairperson-in-Office), Bangladesh, Canada, Jamaica, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu.
At CHOGM 2011 in Perth, Commonwealth leaders mandated CMAG reform, so that CMAG could play a more proactive role in supporting democracy in Commonwealth member states, rather than only reacting to serious violations of Commonwealth values.
The modern Commonwealth of Nations bears little resemblance to the grouping from which it formally arose in 1931. The Commonwealth has its origins in the early nineteenth century when former colonies began to achieve Dominion status and became autonomous communities within the British Empire. They remained united by a common allegiance to the British Crown and freely associated as Members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent states. Unlike other international organisations such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth has no Charter or comparable instrument that makes express provision for the admission of new members. New members of the Commonwealth, with one exception (Mozambique, which is surrounded by Commonwealth countries), have had a past constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth country, as colonies or protectorates or trust territories. This has become the established understanding governing admission to the Commonwealth.
Only independent states can become members of the Commonwealth. However, some territories linked with Commonwealth members states both contribute to and benefit from Commonwealth voluntary funds and programs. Representatives of such territories do from time to time attend Ministerial meetings as part of the delegation of the member government with which they are linked. From Australia's region this category includes Niue and the Cook Islands.
In considering guidelines on membership at the Edinburgh CHOGM in 1997, Leaders agreed that prospective members should comply with Commonwealth values, principles and priorities as set out in the 1991 Harare Declaration. CHOGM in Kampala in 2007 agreed on core criteria for membership including that an applicant country should, as a general rule, have had an historic constitutional association with an existing member, except in exceptional circumstances. Commonwealth membership also entails acceptance of Commonwealth practices and conventions, including the use of the English language as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations and acceptance of the Commonwealth style of informality and consensus.
Commonwealth governance arrangements
The work of the Commonwealth is administered by a Secretariat based in London. The Secretariat is headed by a Secretary-General, Mr Kamalesh Sharma, previously India's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. The Secretary-General is supported by two Deputy Secretaries-General, responsible for the Secretariat's various programs.
A Board of Governors consisting of London-based Commonwealth High Commissioners meets annually in May to give strategic direction to the Secretariat on major policy issues, to review the implementation of CHOGM mandates and to approve strategic plans, work programmes and budgets.
An Executive Committee of the Board of Governors meets every quarter to oversee budgets and audit functions and make policy recommendations to the annual meetings of the Board of Governors. Membership of the Executive Committee is geographically balanced and includes the major contributors to the Commonwealth budgets, of which Australia is one.
The Commonwealth family
The Commonwealth's networks and interests range widely and include civil society, professional and parliamentary groups covering issues ranging from democracy, youth affairs, labour issues, gender equity, human rights, health and education. The following is a small sample of Commonwealth agencies and organisations.
- Commonwealth Foundation
- The Commonwealth Foundation serves the people's Commonwealth. Its members are principally representative of civil society organisations from Commonwealth countries. Founded in 1966 and funded by Commonwealth governments, its central aim is to promote sustainable development and international understanding through collaboration and exchange.
- Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
- The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association links members of national and state parliaments across the Commonwealth. It aims to provide a forum for the discussion of matters of common parliamentary interest.
- Commonwealth Youth Programme
- The Commonwealth Youth Programme strives for a world where young women and men (15-29 years) can fulfil their potential and use their creativity and skills as productive members of the global society. The guiding principle of CYP is that young people possess the drive, ability, and potential to help both themselves and their communities.
- Commonwealth Games Federation
- The Commonwealth Games Federation links the national Commonwealth Games Associations to promote the four-yearly Commonwealth Games, establish rules and regulations for their conduct and encourage amateur sport throughout the Commonwealth.
- Commonwealth Business Council
- Heads of Government at Edinburgh agreed to establish the Commonwealth Business Council to encourage private sector involvement in trade and investment. It was set up by the Rt Hon The Earl Cairns and Mr Cyril Ramaphosa and held its inaugural meeting in April 1998.
- Commonwealth Broadcasting Association
- The Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, linking 68 broadcasting organisations and 18 affiliates in Commonwealth countries, works to advance the quality and status of broadcasting in the Commonwealth.
- Commonwealth Local Government Forum
- The Commonwealth Local Government Forum aims to encourage participatory local government in Commonwealth countries through exchange of information and the strengthening of local capacity. CLGF has organised symposia and workshops on government issues in all regions of the Commonwealth and has launched a Commonwealth Local Good Practice Scheme to fund technical co-operation partnerships between local authorities.
- Commonwealth Medical Association
- The main aim of the Commonwealth Medical Association is to strengthen the capacity of national medical associations in developing countries to improve the health and well-being of their communities.
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative is a non-partisan, independent international NGO. It was founded in 1987 by the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association, Commonwealth Trade Union Council and Commonwealth Journalists Association. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Commonwealth Press Union joined in 1999. Its mission is to work for the practical realisation of human rights across the Commonwealth.
- Commonwealth Trade Union Council
- The Commonwealth Trade Union Council links trade union national centres, representing over 30 million trade union members, throughout the Commonwealth. It operates in close cooperation with other international trade union organisations and seeks to promote a democratic and prosperous Commonwealth in which international labour standards are observed.
- Commonwealth Human Ecology Council
- Commonwealth Human Ecology Council encourages and promotes an understanding of human ecological principles and their application in Commonwealth countries and beyond, aiming to bring together government, experts and community members for this purpose.
- The Commonwealth Secretariat
- Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles 1971
- Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice 1979
- Harare Commonwealth Declaration 1991
- Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme on the Harare Declaration, 1995
- Edinburgh Commonwealth Economic Declaration 1997
- Fancourt Commonwealth Declaration on Globalisation and People-Centred Development 1999
- The Coolum Declaration 2002
- Aso Rock Commonwealth Declaration on Development and Democracy 2003