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Profile: The Commonwealth


Profile: The Commonwealth

Commonwealth heads of government meet in Malta, 2005




Formerly known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, the Commonwealth is a loose association of former British colonies, dependencies and other territories – and Mozambique, which has no historical ties to Britain.

The modern Commonwealth has its roots in the 19th century, when the British Empire began to disintegrate. As some of its constituent parts gained varying degrees of independence from the motherland, a new constitutional definition of their relationship with each other had to be found.


OVERVIEW



OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

But it was only after India’s and Pakistan’s independence in 1947 that the Commonwealth defined its modern shape. It dropped the word British from its name, the allegiance to the crown from its statute, and became a receptacle for decolonised nations. The British monarch, however, remained the official “head of the Commonwealth”.

The Commonwealth has no constitution or charter, but the heads of government of its member states hold Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) every two years to discuss issues of common interest.

In between the summits, the London-based Secretariat – the Commonwealth’s executive arm – takes responsibility for carrying out programmes agreed upon during the various meetings. The Secretariat is headed by a secretary-general.

FACTS



OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES



  • Founded: 1931
  • Members: 53 states
  • Headquarters (secretariat): Marlborough House, London
  • Population: 1.8 billion (30% of world population)
  • Key bodies: Commonwealth Foundation, Commonwealth of Learning


LEADERS



OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

Leader: Queen Elizabeth II

As head of the Commonwealth, the Queen is recognised by its members as the “symbol of their free association”. She attends the Commonwealth summits and the Commonwealth Games, which are held every four years. Also, on every Commonwealth Day, which is the second Monday in March, she broadcasts a message to all member countries.

Secretary-general: Kamalesh Sharma

The secretary-general acts as the chief executive of the Commonwealth. He is elected by heads of government from among Commonwealth diplomats and foreign ministers for a maximum
of two four-year terms.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma

Mr Sharma has devoted much of his career to development work

The present secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, was elected in November 2007 and assumed office on 1 April 2008. An Indian diplomat, he had previously served as India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Prior to his posting to the UK, Mr Sharma was UN Special Representative to East Timor, where he helped to build up the institutions of the newly independent country.

ISSUES



OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | ISSUES

The Commonwealth has been criticised for being a post-colonial club. But to its members it is a voluntary association of independent states which is in the business of promoting democracy, good government, human rights and economic development.

It has also been criticised for having little influence and no teeth. The Commonwealth in fact does not act as a bloc in international affairs and so has little influence over non-members.

However, its influence over its own members derives from the benefits which membership brings in the form of developmental support and collaboration towards the achievement of international goals.

Also, the fact that members share a common heritage in many fields, including a common language, enables them to work together in an atmosphere of cooperation and understanding, strengthening even further the prestige of the Commonwealth.

Closing ceremony of 2002 Commonwealth Games

Commonwealth Games 2002, held in Manchester, UK

Unlike the United Nations, Commonwealth members have no contractual obligations, but members commit themselves to the statements of beliefs set out by heads of government.

In 1995 the Commonwealth set up a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), comprising eight ministers, whose function is to deal with governments which persistently violate Commonwealth principles. It can take such punitive collective measures as imposing economic sanctions or suspending recalcitrant members.

However, the Commonwealth draws its main strength from its moral authority. Committed to racial equality and national sovereignty, it was the focus of the campaign against apartheid in the 1980s. In 1995 it suspended Nigeria’s membership after the military regime there passed the death sentence on the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists, and in 2000 it suspended Fiji after the overthrow of the elected government.

Zimbabwe was suspended in March 2002, after elections which observers said were marred by violence and intimidation. In December 2003 the suspension was extended indefinitely. The Zimbabwean government responded by announcing
the country was leaving the Commonwealth for good.



Membership of the Commonwealth brings some practical benefits through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC). This is the main way in which the Commonwealth promotes economic and social development and the alleviation of poverty.



COMMONWEALTH MEMBERS

Antigua & Barbuda

Jamaica

Sierra Leone

Australia

Kenya

Singapore

The Bahamas

Kiribati

Solomons

Bangladesh

Lesotho

South Africa

Barbados

Malawi

Sri Lanka

Belize

Malaysia

St Kitts

Botswana

Maldives

St Lucia

Brunei

Malta

St Vincent

Cameroon

Mauritius

Swaziland

Canada

Mozambique

Tanzania

Cyprus

Namibia

Tonga

Dominica

Nauru

Trinidad

Fiji (suspended)

New Zealand

Tuvalu

The Gambia

Nigeria

Uganda

Ghana

Pakistan

United Kingdom

Grenada

Papua NG

Vanuatu

Guyana

Seychelles

Zambia

India

Samoa

Zimbabwe (out)

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