Explained: The Relevance Of The Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II's Role In It And Its Future After Her

Queen Elizabeth II was also the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, an international organisation of 54 countries that are mostly former British colonies. Some question its relevance.

Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday. She was also the head of Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth of Nations recently came together for the Commonwealth Games, which were widely hailed in India as the country recorded its best-ever performances in the Games.

However, beyond the Games, people have questioned the relevance of the Commonwealth as it is not as active as the United Nations or the European Union. 

These questions are bound to be raised after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who was also the head of the Commonwealth and played a key role in nurturing the organisation. 

Here we explain what's the Commonwealth of Nations, what was the role of Queen Elizabeth in it, and what experts say of its relevance and future.

History, roles of Commonwealth of nations

The Commonwealth of Nations, or simply the Commonwealth, is a group of 54 countries, most of which are former British colonies.

It was founded in 1931 and its present character came about in 1949. Though the position of the head of Commonwealth is not hereditary, the Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father King George VI as the head. In 2018, the member states elected the then-Prince Charles as the future head of Commonwealth after Queen Elizabeth II. 

The Commonwealth should not be confused with the "Commonwealth realms" which is a separate term referring to the 14 countries besides the United Kingdom which still have the UK's ruler as their head of state, such as Canada and Australia. The Commonwealth of Nations' member states have no relationship with the British ruler. The majority of member states are self-governing republics such as India. In fact, it was India that changed the Commonwealth's character.

The Britannica Encyclopaedia notes, "In 1949 India announced its intention to become a republic, which would have required its withdrawal from the Commonwealth under the existing rules, but at a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in London in April 1949 it was agreed that India could continue its membership if it accepted the British crown as only “the symbol of the free association” of Commonwealth members. That declaration was the first to drop the adjective British, and thereafter the official name of the organization became the Commonwealth of Nations, or simply the Commonwealth."

Members of the Commonwealth send "high commissioner" to fellow member states rather than "ambassadors". This is why India has an Ambassador to the United States (not a Commonwealth member) but has a High Commissioner to Australia (a Commonwealth member). 

In 1971, the Commonwealth committed to "promoting international peace, fighting racism, opposing colonial domination, and reducing inequities in wealth", which were expanded in 2012 in a formal charter to include "core principles such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, sustainable development, access to health and education, and gender equality", according to Britannica.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is headed by the Secretary General. It organises and coordinates Commonwealth activities. The current Secretary General is Patricia Scotland from Malta.

The Commonwealth's agenda revolves around the pillars of democracy and development under which eight programmes are structured, according to the Commonwealth website.

The eight programs are: Good Offices for Peace, Democracy and Consensus-Building, Rule of Law, Human Rights, Public Sector Development, Economic Development, Environmentally Sustainable Development and Human Development.


Commonwealth on racism, human rights, discrimination

As stated earlier, fighting racism, gender equality, and human rights are the core agendas of the Commonwealth. Over the years, the group has taken an activist position on these issues.

Some of the member states have had poor human rights and racial equality records that resulted in their suspension or withdrawal from the grouping, which is seen as a pressure tactic by the group to improve their records.

"Commonwealth opposition to apartheid caused South Africa to withdraw from the organisation in 1961. The country did not re-join until 1994, after apartheid had ended," noted researcher Philip Loft.

He furhter wrote, "The Commonwealth has become more activist in this regard: Since the 1980s, Fiji (three times), Pakistan (twice), Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Maldives have seen their membership suspended or decided to withdraw following criticism of their human rights record."

However, there is still a long road to go to the realisation of these stated goals. Philip noted that 36 of the 69 countries in the world criminalising same-sex relationships are Commonwealth members and the criminalisation in many countries is rooted in British-era laws.

"Many retain legislation introduced in the colonial era—something the UK Government has offered to help countries reform," wrote Philip.

The Queen Elizabeth II's role in Commonwealth 

Historian Philip Murphy has written that the Commonwealth has has become a more substantial position "very much due to the Queen’s efforts".

Queen Elizabeth II's personal encouragement to the Commonwealth has also been crucial to continued meetings of the group. If not for her, researcher Philip Loft wrote, the British governments might not have attended crucial meetings.

"In her role, the Queen pushed to attend Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings when her governments have feared them potentially too controversial. From 1971 to 2015, the Queen missed only two of these biannual meetings," noted Philip.

France 24 noted, "Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth has played a crucial role in championing the Commonwealth and maintaining its relevance."

"The Commonwealth has always been a priority to the Queen, which is a key reason as to why it still survives. She has visited countries in the Commonwealth throughout her reign until relatively recently — her last trip abroad was to Malta in 2015 for the Heads of Government meeting. She has always reminded people of the importance of the Commonwealth, in her Christmas address or in her Commonwealth Day message," said UK expert Craig Prescott to France 24.

Historian Cindy McCreery said, "Elizabeth has been enormously influential. She has taken a great interest in leadership in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, has tried to patch up differences between leaders and keep people feeling as though it is relevant for their nation to stay in the Commonwealth."

The relevance of the Commonwealth

While many question the relevance of the group beyond the Commonwealth Games, experta have highlighted that the grouping gives a voice to smaller members that may otherwise not have much influence of their own. This is a reference to African and Caribbean members of the Commonwealth.

"The Commonwealth amplifies the voice of African nations, providing it with an additional means of lobbying major donors and diplomatic players like the UK, India and Canada. It also provides a potential framework for resolving disputes between African members," said historian Philip Murphy in an article in The Conversation.


Historian Cindy McCreery told France 24, "On their own, small states in the Caribbean would have very little leverage in international affairs - so the Commonwealth is the main avenue they have for getting critical mass. The organisation offers a way for smaller states to band together and potentially have more influence regarding issues like climate change. It gives them a global platform to talk about issues of concern to them, find fellow members that share similar experiences, and potentially get wealthier members like Australia to help out in a spirit of friendship."

Moreover, the organisation is relevant in telling the world that human rights are non-negotiable, as was seen when Fiji, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Maldives were either suspended or themselves withdrew from the organisation over poor human rights records.

The future of the Commonwealth

Questions have been raised at the future of the Commonwealth even before the death of Queen Elizabeth II. 

While earlier, questions were raised on the basis of relevance, now questions are also being raised on the basis of symbolic leadership. 

Since the late Queen was such a towering personality and a strong figurehead of the group, people wonder if her successor King Charles III would provide the same degree of influence. Some experts say yes. 

One of the main areas of focus now of the Commonwealth is climate change and the King is well-known advocate of anti-climate change measures. 

"Prince Charles has always showed a strong interest in climate change, so this may make him appealing to members of the Commonwealth," said said UK expert Craig Prescott, adding that it would also require political will to scale up resources and capabilities of the group which hasn't been seen lately.


Historian Cindy McCreery told France 24, "I bet that Charles will be much more interventionist for issues like the environment and youth affairs. Charles may actually have the ability to get more done than Elizabeth, as he has significant experience working with organisations that are campaigning in these areas."

Any international grouping's effectiveness comes not just from the collective actions but also from the intent and aspirations of individual members. With this mind, experts have said that the Commonwealth may have a good future as the UK is looking to expand economically beyond the Europe after Brexit — its exit from the European Union.

"The post-Brexit environment presents an opportunity for Indian-UK cooperation to remap the Commonwealth for the two countries’ mutual benefit. Britain seems to be looking to the Commonwealth as an alternative channel for safeguarding its economic and trade interests. According to reports, the UK is interested in building a stronger partnership with India, while India is interested in using the Commonwealth to boost trade," noted CSR Murthy in a paper for think tank Carnegie India.

France 24 also noted, "For British conservatives, further engagement with the Commonwealth could help the UK achieve Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” strategy, which consists of reconnecting with “old friends and new allies” in a post-Brexit world."

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