Commonwealth celebrates 70th birthday with questions about its role

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The modern Commonwealth turns 70 with a membership of 54 sovereign states embracing some 2 billion people, with Britain’s Prince Charles named as the association’s new leader and with a question mark over the usefulness of the body.

The 70th anniversary observances at Westminster Abbey and reception in London with Queen Elizabeth II promise to bring most or all Commonwealth leaders to London. Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa would like to be among them, and his wish to return Zimbabwe to the fold is likely to be voted on at the biannual meeting of the leaders in 2020. Zimbabwe, which joined the Commonwealth in 1980, withdrew during the Robert Mugabe era after its membership was suspended amid reports of election rigging. Mnangagwa has applied to rejoin.

Commonwealth membership ebbs and flows. The Maldives departed in 2016, Fiji was readmitted in Sep 2014 after an 8-year break, and Gambia is back in 2018 after five years on the outside.

Commonwealth leaders honored the Queen’s wishes in 2018 and agreed that Prince Charles should succeed her as head of the organization. The queen has defined the Commonwealth as a “family of nations” that bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It has often struggled to clearly define itself and its role. Supporters argue that it encourages developing members to raise their standard of democracy, rights and governance.

Its critics point out that it talks about ideals that it doesn’t uphold and offers a fig-leaf of legitimacy to disreputable regimes, and wastes time that would be better spent on regional trade blocs and pacts that matter.

The Commonwealth was formed in 1949 when eight countries – Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the United Kingdom – signed the Declaration of London after a six-day conference. Starting with Ghana in 1957, the Commonwealth expanded rapidly with new members from Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Several members, notably Mozambique and Rwanda, have no colonial relationship to Britain.

Commonwealth members

Prince Charles to be next head of Commonwealth (Guardian Apr 2018)

Zimbabwe's Mnangagwa promises probe of post-election killings, urges unity (Reuters Aug 2018)

The Big Question: What is the Commonwealth's role, and is it relevant to global politics? (Independent Nov 2009)

Date written/update: 2018-11-05