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What is the Commonwealth and what is its role today?

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) opening ceremony at Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (Chris Jackson/PA)
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) opening ceremony at Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (Chris Jackson/PA)

Leaders have arrived in Rwanda for this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm).

The event, which is held every two years on average, is this year taking place in Kigali, where presidents and prime ministers are discussing important issues currently facing the world.

It has been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, we look at what the role of the Commonwealth is today.

– What is the Commonwealth?

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
General view during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Kigali, Rwanda (Dan Kitwood/PA)

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 independent and equal countries with a combined population of 2.5 billion people. The Commonwealth’s roots go back to the British Empire, but now any country can join it.

It originated with the 1931 Statute of Westminster, and its original members were the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland (which joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949) and the Irish Free State (which left the Commonwealth in 1949).

– What function does it have?

Its goal is to have the nations work together to promote prosperity, democracy and peace.

– What is its role today?

The Commonwealth said its role today is largely focused on six actions: to raise awareness about the development challenges small states face; to support young people and help improve society; help nations protect the environment while tackling the climate crisis; promote democracy, good governance, peace, human rights, and the rule of law; and boost trade between member nations and host events.

– Which nations are in the Commonwealth?

In Africa, the nations are: Botswana, Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

In the Caribbean and Americas it’s: Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.

Over in the pacific, they include: Australia, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

In Asia, the member nations are: Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

And in Europe, they include: Cyprus, Malta and the United Kingdom.

– Who is the head of the Commonwealth?

Head of the Commonwealth
Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Commonwealth (Victoria Jones/PA)

The Queen has been head of the Commonwealth since coming to the throne in 1952. Her eldest son and heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales, is representing her at this year’s gathering with his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.

– What does the head of the Commonwealth do?

The head of the Commonwealth is a largely symbolic post with no real powers. The head’s main role is to officially open the Chogm.

– How did the role evolve?

The modern Commonwealth was established by the London Declaration of 1949, just two years after India and Pakistan were granted independence.

The London Declaration said the British monarch would be a symbol of the free association of independent countries, and, as such, the head of the Commonwealth. This meant republics could be members and accept the sovereign as head of the Commonwealth without him or her being their head of state.