Public Diplomacy

The Commonwealth: Old Links, New Ties

November 08, 2013

By Archis Mohan

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM is scheduled to be held in Colombo from November 15 to 17. It is only the second instance of the CHOGM Summit taking place in South Asia. The subcontinent comprises over two-thirds of the Commonwealth's population.The CHOGM Summit is where the Commonwealth leaders meet once every two years to discuss global and Commonwealth issues, and reach consensus on future policies and initiatives. The 2013 Colombo CHOGM will be the 22nd edition of the event.

The 53 Commonwealth heads of government - and not heads of state as Queen Elizabeth is recognised the head of the Commonwealth - meet at a time the organisation faces renewed questions about its relevance.

images/1341.jpgA view of the eighth CHOGM in Nassau on October 16, 1985
Commonwealth an uneasy history

The Commonwealth has its roots in the colonial paradigm of the 19th Century. The first Conference of British and colonial prime ministers was held in 1887, and periodically thereafter. It later led to the founding of the Imperial Conferences in 1911 and the association was named the British Commonwealth in the 1920s. At the time it was a consultative group of the six 'white' self-governing dominions of the British Empire - the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. Owing allegiance to the British Crown was a prerequisite for a membership.

The late-1940s with colonies like India gaining independence could have led to the demise of the association, or the restriction of its members to the mono-ethnic white only Anglo-Saxon association. At one point in time in 1948 this indeed looked a distinct possibility when British politicians allowed republican Ireland to walk out of the British Commonwealth as the latter demanded a change in the organisation's basic tenet regarding allegiance to the crown. The British Commonwealth refused Burma entry after it declared itself a republic. Myanmar is the only former British colony that is still not a member of the Commonwealth.

But the prospect of losing India, the jewel in the crown, was a pain that the British were unwilling to endure. India was adamant that it would become a republic in 1950 as decided by its Constituent Assembly. India, under Nehru, was also conscious of advantages of joining the Commonwealth. Nehru said in 1948 that there was "great scope for the Commonwealth...its very strength lies in its flexibility and its complete freedom". It was hoped that the Commonwealth may become a third force by remaining independent of either the American or Soviet blocs.

The Commonwealth PMs met in 1949 to adopt the 'London Declaration' based on Nehru's formula which agreed that all member countries would be "freely and equally associated". It also meant the adjective 'British' was junked. The declaration stated the Commonwealth members were "free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”.

India also played a key role in making the Commonwealth attractive to the newly liberated African nations. It was India's lead that made newly independent African countries to shed inhibitions about joining an organisation that their former colonial masters still controlled. But soon by their sheer numbers these countries made the Commonwealth a platform to battle racial discrimination.

All those who question the relevance of the Commonwealth need only to look at how the non-white member countries of the organisation used it to fight apartheid. These countries ensured South Africa's sporting isolation through their Gleneagles Agreement which forced South Africa out of the Commonwealth in the early 1960s. South Africa returned to the Commonwealth in 1990 but only after giving up apartheid as its state policy.

The organisation faced another hiccup in 1972 when the newly independent Bangladesh joined the Commonwealth. Pakistan, which along with India was one of the founding members, protested this and withdrew from the Commonwealth. The association didn't blink at losing its second most populous member. Pakistan joined back in 1989.

In later years, the Commonwealth has taken uncompromising stance on the issue of human rights and democracy. Nigeria, Pakistan, Fiji and Zimbabwe have been suspended in the recent past for human rights violations or overthrow of elected governments. Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan are back as members.

In recent years, Mozambique, Rwanda and Cameroon have become the latest members of the Commonwealth. In 2011, South Sudan also requested membership. Interestingly, neither Rwanda nor Mozambique has had any administrative association with the former British colonial empire. The entry of Mozambique required an amendment in the Commonwealth's membership guidelines.

Currently, the Commonwealth has some of the world's smallest states as its members, like Tuvalu with a population of 10,000. Thirty two of its 53-members are small states. It is one of the Commonwealth's strengths to provide a direct interaction and platform for cooperation and technical assistance to these small states from the Pacific islands and the Caribbean by larger member states like India.


images/2341.jpgDr.Manmohan Singh, then Finance Minister, represented India at the CHOGM Summit in Cyprus, 1993
The year 1965 marked a watershed in the Commonwealth with the setting up of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. It is the main intergovernmental agency to manage the affairs of the association like organising ministerial meetings, etc. The establishment of the secretariat meant that the monopoly of the original six white members of the association was further eroded with many diplomats from across the Commonwealth's non-white members coming to manage the organisation. The Commonwealth is represented by the secretariat at the UN General Assembly as an observer.

The secretariat is headed by the Commonwealth Secretary-General. India's Kamalesh Sharma is the current and also the first Indian to be the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. He was elected to the post in 2008. He is into his second term. The Secretary-General is elected by Commonwealth heads of government for a maximum of two four year terms. The secretary general is assisted by two deputy secretaries-general. Canadian Arnold Smith was the first secretary-general (1965-75), followed by Guyana's Shridath Ramphal (1975-90), Nigerian Emeka Anyaoku (1990-99) and Don McKinnon of New Zealand (2000-08).

In 1971, the CHOGM process was set up and the meetings of the Commonwealth heads of governments, which until then only took place in the UK, travelled out of London. The first CHOGM was held in Singapore in 1971.

The Commonwealth has no written constitution, members reach decisions through consultations. It believes "the best democracies are achieved through partnerships - of governments, business, and civil society" and that "beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, members are united through the association’s values of: democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all".

The Commonwealth agreed upon these values at the CHOGM in Singapore in 1971. The 14 points Singapore Declaration dedicated the members to the principles of world peace, liberty, human rights and equality. These principles were reaffirmed and made enforceable at the Harare CHOGM in 1991 through the Harare Declaration.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Acton Group (CMAG), a rotating group of nine foreign ministers constituted in 1995, is responsible for protecting these values and assessing the nature of any infringement. It can suspend or recommend to heads of government to expel a member state.

The CHOGMs are the marquee events of the Commonwealth. A CHOGM has a two tier format - a) Executive Sessions, where the the heads of government interact in a more formal manner and they make statements, and are accompanied by ministers or officials, and (b) a Retreat, where the heads of government interact informally with their counterparts without the presence of any aides. This 'retreat' is a unique element of CHOGMs which was later adopted at SAARC Summits as well.

The CHOGM discusses issues that include international peace and security, democracy, good governance, sustainable development, debt management, education, environment, gender equality, health, human rights, information and communication technology, law, multilateral trade issues, small states and youth affairs.

India and the Commonwealth

India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a great champion of the cause of the Commonwealth. It may not be an exaggeration to say that if not for Nehru the modern Commonwealth, as we know it today, may have never come into existence.

India, the Commonwealth's largest member state, has once hosted CHOGM. New Delhi was the venue for the seventh CHOGM Summit under the then PM Indira Gandhi's leadership in 1983. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the CHOGM Summits in Malta (2005), Uganda (2007) and Trinidad and Tobago (2009). Vice President M. Hamid Ansari represented India at the last CHOGM in Perth in 2011.

images/3341.jpg Group photograph of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Britain with the Heads of the Governments of the Commonwealth countries during CHOGM in New Delhi on November 23, 1983
India is the fourth largest contributor to the Commonwealth budget but has played an important role in the Commonwealth's important landmarks, like setting up of its secretariat in 1965, the Singapore Declaration of 1971, Harare Declaration of 1991 and establishing the Ministerial Action Group in 1995. India's signal contribution, however, has been to provide solidarity to African member countries to fight apartheid.

As the then foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai said in 2011 India believes it has a natural partnership with the Commonwealth as it is a community of English speaking nations, all of whom have a common legal system and the focus on South-South cooperation through the Commonwealth has been very effectively managed and used.

images/4.jpgIndira Gandhi & Commonwealth Secretary General S.S.Ramphal receiving Heads of the Governments of Commonwealth countries at Vigyan Bhavan before the inauguration of CHOGM in New Delhi on Nov 23,1983
Over the years, India has found the Commonwealth useful as a forum to look after the interests of the people of Indian origin living abroad, for example Fiji. The South Pacific island with a substantial population of Indian origin people witnessed military coups in 1987 and 2000 to overthrow elected governments headed by people of Indian origin. On both occasions, the Commonwealth threw out Fiji from the association. Most countries with people of Indian origin are also members of the Commonwealth.

images/5341.jpg Inside view of Vigyan Bhavan on the opening day of CHOGM in New Delhi on November 23, 1983
But there is lot more that not only India but some of the Commonwealth's other important members like the UK can do to reinvigorate the organisation.

A recent book 'Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks'by David Howell, former minister for the Commonwealth in the current David Cameron government, argues for Britain to engage and re-energise the Commonwealth. Howell says the Commonwealth, with its old cultural links and shared history, offers Britain an opportunity to redefine its role in the new order where states from Asia, Africa and Latin America have come to wield increasing power and influence.

Former Indian foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan made a similar plea to Indian foreign policy minders in his essay'India and the Commonwealth' published in 'Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities' in 2007. Srinivasan,the Commonwealth deputy secretary general from 1995 to 2002, said "as a founding member of the modern Commonwealth and with 60 per cent of the organisation's total population, India should be able to exercise great leverage and influence over the Commonwealth's entire scope of activity".Srinivasan argued that India should invest more of its interest and time in the Commonwealth because "above all, in the Commonwealth, when India speaks, everyone listens. This is by no means the case in the UN or NAM."

Archis Mohan ( is Foreign Policy Editor,

(The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.)


The Commonwealth facts:

  1. The biggest non-region specific organisations in the world
  2. Founded in 1949
  3. Commonwealth Secretariat set up in 1965 in London
  4. Current strength 53 members
  5. Home to 2.2 billion people
  6. 1.5 billion from subcontinent
  7. India largest member state and fourth largest contributor to its budget
  8. Over 60% of its citizens are under 30
  9. 18 African members, 8 Asian, 3 from the Americas, 10 from the Caribbean, 3 European and 11 South Pacific countries its members
  10. Recent members Rwanda, Cameroon and Mozambique
  11. Mozambique and Rwanda first member states with no historical or administrative association to the former British colonial empire
  12. Fiji, Pakistan and South Africa have left the association in the past but returned to the fold
  13. Zimbabwe left in 2003 but is yet to restore its membership
  14. The Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth in October 2013

  1. India and the Commonwealth
  2. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's intervention at CHOGM, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on November 28, 2009
  3. Transcript of media briefing by Foreign Secretary on Vice President M. Hamid Ansari's visit to Perth for CHOGM
  4. Intervention by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Climate Change at CHOGM, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on November 27, 2009
  5. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement on the eve of his departure for Kampala, Uganda to attend CHOGM, November 21, 2007
  6. The Commonwealth Charter


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