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The modern Commonwealth was established in 1949, with the signing of the London Declaration. At the time, it had only eight members.

More than seventy years later, the association now has 56 members (29% of the UN’s membership), a population of over 2.5 billion (around 32% of the global population), and a collective GDP estimated to be US$ 13 trillion in 2020.

The UK has significant historic and trading links with the Commonwealth, with all but four members being formerly part of the British empire. In 2020 the Commonwealth accounted for nearly 9% of the UK’s total trade—around the same as the UK’s trade with Germany.

This Briefing provides a short history of the organisation, how it works, what it does, and how its membership is determined.

What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 56 countries, who seek to collaborate on issues such as democracy, trade and climate change through formal political meetings, cultural and educational organisations, and specific programmes and investments.

Queen Elizabeth II is recognised as its symbolic head. Day-to-day decision making is undertaken by the Secretary General, currently Baroness Scotland. Every two years, Commonwealth Heads of Government meet to discuss Commonwealth and other issues, releasing a summit communiqué of their agreements. The most recent meeting took place in Rwanda in June 2022.

All members are considered equal, and decisions are taken by consensus.

What does the Commonwealth do?

The Commonwealth works through both the formal efforts of the Secretariat and Commonwealth leaders but also through informal links and civil society organisations.

One of its important international roles is promoting human rights among its members. The Secretariat has observed 160 elections in 40 Commonwealth countries, and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), constituted of eight Commonwealth foreign ministers, has the power to make recommendations for corrective action on human rights. The Commonwealth can suspend members who undermine their democracies (see below).

Trade between Commonwealth members is substantial, and its Connectivity Agenda aims to increase intra-Commonwealth trade to US$2 trillion by 2030, up from an estimated US$700 million in 2020. The organisation also works to improve the competitiveness of Commonwealth countries through business loans, public debt management, and reducing trade barriers.

How do members join?

Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed several criteria for membership in 2007. This included countries having historic constitutional ties to an existing member and accepting Commonwealth values, such as democracy and the rule of law.

There is currently only one active application to join, from Zimbabwe in 2018. The country was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2003 and withdrew the same year. Its application seems unlikely to succeed at present: The UK has raised concerns for the treatment of activists and state of political rights in the country. Two former French colonies, Gabon and Togo, joined in 2022.

When can members be suspended?

Since the 1991 Harare Declaration on human rights in the Commonwealth and establishment of the CMAG in 1995, the association has become more proactive in monitoring the human rights situations in its members.

Several members, including Fiji, Nigeria, and Pakistan (PDF) have been suspended in response to the deterioration of their democracies and military coups. All have subsequently re-joined once democratic governments were restored.

Annual Commonwealth Day each March

Commonwealth Day is held annually on the second Monday of March. It is marked by a service in Westminster Abbey.

The theme for 2022 was “Delivering a common future” and how the Commonwealth helps achieve goals such as addressing climate change, promoting good governance, and improving trade.

Further resources

The Commonwealth publishes a series of “fast facts” summaries on the Commonwealth, covering the body as an organisation, the Secretary General, elections, gender equality and climate change.

Update log

July 2022: Added information on outcomes of the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, including membership increasing to 56.

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