INDEPTH: THE COMMONWEALTH|
June Chua, CBC News Online | December 3, 2003
The Commonwealth is a collection of 54 countries drawn largely from the former British Empire. The one exception is Mozambique, which was a Portuguese colony. While he was president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela made a formal plea to members to include Mozambique because it played a major role in freeing South Africa from apartheid.
The Commonwealth's 1.7 billion people make up 30 per cent of the world's population.
The idea for the modern Commonwealth began in 1949 after India chose to become a republic while retaining its British ties. As many Asian and African states achieved independence during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the organization grew as a collective of sovereign states. Since then, many Caribbean and Pacific islands have become members.
Membership is voluntary but each member nation is expected to adhere to Commonwealth principles:
- The pursuit of international peace and order in support of the United Nations.
- The promotion of representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law.
- The recognition of racial equality and the need to combat racial discrimination and racial oppression.
- Lessening the disparities of wealth in societies.
Nations lining up to join include Yemen and Rwanda; the Palestinian National Authority, which is not recognized as a sovereign state, wants in as well.
The purpose of the group is to work together to improve the quality of life of their citizens and to help each other make their economies stronger. They also work toward agreement on international issues such as free trade, debt relief and battling terrorism.
The summits, known as CHOGMS (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings), are held every two years.
Declarations are made about Commonwealth aims and positions. Every country has an equal vote and decisions are made by consensus, that is, with the agreement of all.
If a country doesn't follow the Commonwealth's principles, it can be suspended or expelled. Once the country has shown it is following Commonwealth values again, it will be allowed back in. In 1999, the group voted to suspend Pakistan after a military coup. That meant the country couldn't send any delegates to any Commonwealth events until it restored democracy. Nigeria was suspended in 1995 after the execution of activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, a member of the country's minority Ogoni people.
Sometimes, countries voluntarily leave. South Africa left in 1961 because of the organization's opposition to apartheid. It was readmitted in 1994 after apartheid was dismantled. Pakistan left in 1972 after members recognized the new state of Bangladesh, which was previously a part of Pakistan. Pakistan was welcomed back in 1989. Following a military coup in 1987, the Fiji Islands stopped attending Commonwealth meetings. It then reapplied to rejoin the Commonwealth in 1997.
Most recently, Zimbabwe said in December 2003 that it would leave the Commonwealth after a panel recommended that its 18-month suspension from the group be extended. The Commonwealth had suspended the African country after President Robert Mugabe was accused of rigging his re-election.
In 1991, the Commonwealth added the "Harare Declaration," a special emphasis on human rights, gender equality, sustainable development and environmental protection. States that do not uphold these principles could see their membership suspended.
The Commonwealth is also active in education. Commonwealth education ministers meet every three years to discuss issues of mutual interest. Every conference has its own theme but the main issues are:
- Ensuring all children and young people have access to the highest quality of education.
- ensuring that their education is fully inclusive.
- ensuring it enables them to maximize their achievements.
Richer Commonwealth nations Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand have provided scholarships for students in developing countries to pursue their post-secondary educations.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is the governing body that administers programs. It has an annual budget of about $26 million. Three major programs are:
- The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC). The fund promotes technical co-operation and training, with experts in the field sent to advise in economics, law, industry and marketing.
- The Commonwealth Youth Program (CYP) supports regional youth centres in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South Pacific.
- The Commonwealth Science Council promotes the sharing of scientific knowledge among member nations.
There are many other Commonwealth foundations and associations run under the aegis of the secretariat including the Commonwealth Business Network, the Commonwealth Foundation (arts), the Commonwealth Science Foundation, the Commonwealth of Learning, and the Commonwealth Business Council.
The Commonwealth Games are also a key component of this club. The first games were held in 1930 in Hamilton, Ont. Four hundred athletes from 11 countries took part and the only sport women were allowed to participate in was swimming. The games are held once every four years.
The next games will be held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006 with 4,500 athletes competing.
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