Apart from the Games, what does the Commonwealth do?

The group of nations was formed officially in 1949

Thousands of the world’s top athletes began arriving in Glasgow on Monday, ahead of the start of the 20th Commonwealth Games.

Dubbed the ‘friendly games’, more than 4,500 sports men and women will compete in events across 17 sports from 24 July to 3 August.

Before Wednesday’s ceremony which will kick off the event, we answer what the Commonwealth is, and what it does.

What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth is a voluntary intergovernmental association of 53 member states, almost all of which were formerly ruled by Britain - directly or indirectly. Therefore, the group encompasses nations from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific.

The states involved agree to share a common set of values and ideals, and acknowledge a shared history and traditional trade links.

What is its history?

Its name dates back to the 19th century, when in 1884 the British Empire was first described as the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ by British Liberal politician Lord Roseberry in Adelaide, Australia during a famous speech.

As states under British rule gained independence at the start of the twentieth century, they became self-governing while remaining in the Commonwealth and retaining Britain’s monarch as Head of State.

A sculpture known as 'the Big G' is pictured in Glasgow in Scotland, on July 21, 2014, ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The Commonwealth Games begin in Glasgow on July 23, 2014. A sculpture known as 'the Big G' is pictured in Glasgow in Scotland. The Commonwealth Games begin in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Read more: Katarina Johnson-Thompson will not take part
Will the Scottish referendum be the 'elephant in the stadium'?
Laura Trott: ‘I live a normal life. We walk the dogs, see his family...’

While the Statute of Westminster recognised Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as independent states in 1931, the modern Commonwealth was established in 1949 with the London Declaration.

This saw leaders agree to recognise they were "free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations" with the common goals of "freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress."

These values are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter and promoted by the Commonwealth Games.

The Declaration also meant member states could hold different constitutions, for example: India and South Africa are republics with a president as Head of State, while the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Barbados recognise Queen Elizabeth II as their Sovereign. But regardless of constitution, Queen Elizabeth II is recognised as the Head of the Commonwealth.

The group's central institution is the Commonwealth Secretariat. This body helps to organise meetings between member states, and offers advice on implementing policy, among other things.

What does it do?

Leaders of the Commonwealth meet every two years to at the Heads of Government Meeting, where they discuss issues of mutual concern and agree on collective policies and initiatives.

But unlike the United Nations, the Commonwealth cannot impose sanctions on member states, arguably making it less powerful.

In theory, as all members have an equal say, regardless of size or economic stature, the group gives smaller states a voice in international politics and influence in diplomatic circles they might not otherwise have.

However, the Commonwealth has been accused of failing to see its members uphold its basic principles.

In 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended for a year after supporters of President Robert Mugabe used violence to help him win an election. A year later, Mugabe withdrew from the coaliton.

Last year, the Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth, accusing Britain of supporting his political opponents and calling the organisation a "neo-colonial institution."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future