The Commonwealth: Who's in the club?

As the 18th Games begin, Paul Vallely discovers what unites - and divides - the Commonwealth

Thursday 16 March 2006 01:00


The biggest country in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Secretariat was almost moved from London to Toronto during the Thatcher era, when Britain's relations with black Africa became so poor that the Queen had to work behind the scenes to soothe the anger black leaders felt at her Prime Minister's support for the apartheid regime.


A turning point in the history of the Commonwealth came when this massive country of 100 million people was suspended from membership in 1995 for its military rulers' abuses of power. Since its readmission in 1999, Nigeria has slowly but steadily improved its record on democracy and good government, and has begun a crackdown on corruption.


To the British the Commonwealth is more than a ragged remnant of Empire. It has helped us come to terms with our decline as a great power.


Was once a member, but left upon becoming a republic in 1949, to the chagrin of Eamon de Valera (right).


Every two years, Commonwealth leaders meet, most recently in Valletta last November. In its early days, the Commonwealth was primarily an economic bloc. But in recent times it has become a vehicle for the development of its poorer members in a globalised economy. In Malta for that meeting were representatives of more than 200 organisations that foster links between doctors, dentists, businessmen, lawyers, journalists, town planners, vets and others. Such organisations are expanding, revealing where the value of the Commonwealth lies for most of its members.


The PLO has unsuccessfully applied to join the Commonwealth, as has Rwanda (a former German colony) and Cambodia (once part of French Indochina). Yemen wants to join, too.


Apart from Aden, Burma is the only former British colony that didn't join the Commonwealth. But Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman - all former British protectorates or mandates - aren't members either.


Left the Commonwealth at the end of British rule in 1997 when it became a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.


Emerging Third World economies see the Commonwealth primarily as a vehicle for economic development. In Singapore in 1971, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation was set up to put member countries' skills at each other's disposal.


The most populous member, with a billion people according to the 2001 census. The world's largest democracy.


A former French colony, only a fraction of whose territory was ever under British administration. Joined in 1995, revealing the importance the Commonwealth has to the poorest African nations.


This island nation halfway between Hawaii and Australia is the smallest Commonwealth member with only 11,000 inhabitants.


Official Commonwealth observers were present for the presidential elections in February. This, along with training for government workers, is one of the organisation's key functions. Members also assert pressure on one another to promote human rights, democracy and development policies that benefit the poor.


In 1991 the Harare Declaration dedicated the Commonwealth to the principles of democracy, good government, human rights, the rule of law and sustainable economic and social development - and allowed for action to be taken against any members who failed to comply with these principles. Ironically the state most in breach at present is Zimbabwe itself.


Left when it became a republic in 1961, but was readmitted in 1994, four years after the end of apartheid. It is now one of the Commonwealth's major players, acting as an economic and political broker between black Africa and the predominately white Commonwealth members.


The only member never to have had any constitutional link to the British Empire. The former Portuguese colony wanted to join because all its neighbours were members. It was admitted in 1995.


Leaders' meetings bring prime ministers into direct personal contact, often without any officials present. The atmosphere is described as "club-like". Relatively small countries like Tanzania believe that this gives them far more say than in other international forums.


Home to the current Commonwealth Games. The first, in Canada in 1930, had 400 athletes from 11 countries. This year's have 72 teams with around 4,500 athletes. Australia's Prime Minister John Howard (below) has hinted that his country may become a republic when Prince Charles takes the throne, but the Australian Republican Movement insists that the country should stay in the Commonwealth. Australia's Kate Grenville, whose novel The Secret River is about a convict shipped to a 19th-century penal colony, recently won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.


Ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth for 10 years from 1987, after a republican coup, and was suspended again in 2000 for a year after another coup. Thereafter, a number of members, including Pakistan, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, were also suspended for failure to uphold democratic government.

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