Today (12th March) is attending the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey. Her annual message to the Commonwealth will also be broadcast to all member countries. If you are visiting London and have walked down the Mall to Buckingham Palace you passed the Marlborough house which houses the Commonwealth Secretariat, it stands next to St James’s Palace. To many visitors from abroad the Commonwealth is a bit of a mystery, what exactly is the Commonwealth? It is a voluntary association of 53 independent countries, almost all of which were formerly under British rule at the time of the British Empire. The membership includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Brunei, Nigeria, Singapore, Cyprus, Malta and Kenya. It is a remarkable international organisation, embracing every geographical region, religion and culture. Its aim is to encourage international co-operation between people all over the world. Two of the newest members, Mozambique and Rwanda, have no historical ties to the British Empire and there are more nations on the waiting list hoping to join.
George VI became the first head of the commonwealth in 1949 and following his death, the Commonwealth leaders recognised Queen Elizabeth II as his successor to that role. The Queen is very much endeared to the commonwealth because she has seen it grow during her reign from just 8 countries at the beginning to 53 now. She has helped the Commonwealth to develop and to hold together, she is passionate about it and regards its growth as one of the greatest achievements of her reign.
The Commonwealth is home to nearly 2.5 billion people, 33% of the world population. It covers 11.5 million square miles, 21% of the world’s land area. It is home to one in three people aged 15-29. 5 of the countries are republics, 5 have their own monarch and the other 15 are Commonwealth realms which means they have the Queen as their monarch. The Queen is represented in her 15 commonwealth realms by the Governor General in that country who carries out duties in her name. The Queen is however the most travelled monarch in history and much of the success of the commonwealth is due to her travelling to member countries. During her reign she has made nearly 200 overseas visits to commonwealth countries, the only two she has not visited are Cameroon and Rwanda ,the two newest members and it was only when she reached the age of 87 that she began to pass on the baton for Commonwealth visits to Prince Charles who has undertaken extensive Commonwealth travels recently. The Queen has also attended 19 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, these happen every two years in a different Commonwealth country each time. The next meeting will be held in London and Windsor in April.
India is the biggest country in the Commonwealth with 1.2 million people the smallest is Nauru with 10,000, by the way Nauru is the most successful nation per capita in the Commonwealth Games which is held every 4 years. All countries in the organisation have equal say regardless of their size. That’s one of the really great things about the Commonwealth, it allows smaller countries to interact in diplomatic forums with larger, more powerful countries.
The Commonwealth promotes, democracy and good governance, freedom, human rights and sustainable development. There are no formal agreements for trade but the Commonwealth enables prime ministers and trade ministers to meet informally and opportunities for trade can result. The Commonwealth cannot sanction member states by force, but when governments persistently violate Commonwealth principles, they can be suspended. This was the case with Zimbabwe in 2002 following allegations of rigged elections. The Commonwealth also played a role in championing the boycott of apartheid South Africa. Living in South Africa in the 1990s as an expat I remember that country’s joy at being able to return to the Commonwealth shortly after Nelson Mandela had been made President. The Commonwealth is also involved with conflict prevention and its role in this is marked by respect, impartiality and discretion. It has observed 140 elections across 40 countries since 1980. It offers member countries the chance to work together to achieve solutions to a wide range of problems. There are lots of commonwealth associations which allow countries to access advice and expertise and to have dialogues. Over the years it has proved to be a major force of change for the better.
During her reign the Queen has sent over 175,000 telegrams to all those in the Commonwealth celebrating their 100th birthday and 540,000 cards to couples celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.
The Commonwealth is able to promote and facilitate the type of networks which are desirable and sought after in the challenges of today’s world, it fits well with the 21st Century and looks set to continue for many years to come as future generations of the royal family pledge themselves to continuing service to the organisation. I am fortunate to have a ticket for the Commonwealth Day Service today and I feel proud to be a citizen of a Commonwealth country.