By Vincent McAviney
This week sees world leaders flying to London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The meeting of Commonwealth of Nations, previously the British Commonwealth, takes place every two years but what exactly is it all about?
What does the Commonwealth do?
The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political associations. It is comprised of 53 states in 6 continents most of which were previously ruled by the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries.
At the end of the British Empire after the Second World War countries gained their independence but were invited to join the Commonwealth.
Membership is voluntary and based on a shared commitment to values including liberty, human rights, trade and good governance.
The Commonwealth Games, a sort of mini Olympics, also takes place every 4 years.
The Commonwealth has a total population of 2.4 billion people in countries including Canada, Australia, Nigeria, India and much of the Caribbean.
Three nations, Cameroon, Mozambique, and Rwanda, joined despite having never been in the British Empire.
Will Brexit affect the Commonwealth?
During the Brexit Referendum, many Brexiteers argued Britain had neglected the Commonwealth as a result of joining the EU. They argue the Commonwealth will play an important role in Britain’s future trade links and that part of ‘taking back control’ of borders is to swap EU for Commonwealth migration.
At the opening of CHOGM British Foreign Secretary Boris John said “We made a terrific mistake. We turned out backs. Trade with Commonwealth countries went off a cliff.
“Literally, Australian farmers shot themselves as a result of the loss of markets in the UK. It was a very tough time.”
“Every delegation I have met they are all interested in the possibilities of free trade. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun and it will be, I hope, a really exciting period for the Commonwealth. It’s a weirdly harmonious family. It’s very positive.”
What are the major issues facing the Commonwealth now?
With HM the Queen no longer traveling overseas due to her age there have been questions about who will succeed her as the head of the Commonwealth. Whilst Prince Charles is the heir to the Crown the role of head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary. Not everyone thinks he should take on this role but opening CHOGM HM the Queen, making a rare public intervention, urged leaders to choose Prince Charles as her successor.
Another issue is the dark legacy of the Empire in putting anti-LGBT rights laws on many statute books. Homosexuality is still criminalized in 70% of the Commonwealth with nine countries enforcing life sentences.
Prime Minister Theresa May has urged the Commonwealth to overhaul “outdated” colonial-era legislation and even acknowledged Britain has a “special responsibility” for fixing this.
Last week at the Commonwealth Games in Australia openly gay diver Tom Daley used his gold medal win to take a stand writing on Instagram “37 of the competing nations criminalize being LGBT+. I feel so lucky to be able to be openly who I am without worry. I hope one day every athlete from every nation in the commonwealth will be free to compete openly as who they are too!”
This week’s meeting has also been blighted by the scandal of Windrush children who have the right to reside in the UK facing deportation due to issues with new immigration rules. It’s raised uncomfortable questions over Britain’s colonial past and attitudes towards the Commonwealth.
Will new countries join the Commonwealth?
The Commonwealth is a voluntary organization so membership has changed over the years. Ireland, the Maldives, and Zimbabwe have all left the Commonwealth. Zimbabwe left in 2003 after being suspended from the organization. Other countries who have been suspended for periods are Nigeria, Fiji, and Pakistan.
Currently, Somaliland, South Sudan, Sudan and Suriname are all prospective members. Other countries which have considered joining or becoming ‘associate members’ at one point include America, Israel, and Egypt.