The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political associations of states. Its roots go back to the British Empire, when countries around the world were ruled by Britain.
Over time different countries of the British Empire gained different levels of freedom from Britain. Semi-independent countries were called Dominions. Leaders of the Dominions attended conferences with Britain from 1887.
The 1926 Imperial Conference was attended by the leaders of Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa.
At the 1926 conference Britain and the Dominions agreed that they were all equal members of a community within the British Empire. They all owed allegiance to the British king or queen, but the United Kingdom did not rule over them. This community was called the British Commonwealth of Nations or just the Commonwealth.
The Dominions and other territories of the British Empire gradually became fully independent of the United Kingdom.
India became independent in 1947. India wanted to become a republic which didn’t owe allegiance to the British king or queen, but it also wanted to stay a member of the Commonwealth.
At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in 1949, the London Declaration said that republics and other countries could be part of the Commonwealth. The modern Commonwealth of Nations was born.
King George VI was the first Head of the Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth II became Head when he died. But the British king or queen is not automatically Head of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth member countries choose who becomes Head of the Commonwealth.
Speaking on this new association in 1953 Her Majesty the Queen said: “Thus formed, the Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
Since 1949 independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined the Commonwealth. Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation.
The last four countries to join the Commonwealth – Rwanda, Mozambique, Gabon and Togo – have no historical ties to the British Empire.
The Commonwealth Secretariat was created in 1965 as a central intergovernmental organisation to manage the Commonwealth’s work.
Learn more about the Commonwealth
The Commonwealth library and archives are available for historical research and study at Marlborough House in London.
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Eight countries come together to form the modern Commonwealth. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom decided to reform their old association into the modern Commonwealth.
Leaders agree that Commonwealth members are “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”
London, United Kingdom, 21 July 1949. Ministers reviewed the economic position of the sterling area, in light of the recent fall in the level of gold and dollar reserves.
2 June 1953. Prime Ministers and leading citizens from across the Commonwealth attend Her Majesty The Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in London.
6 March 1957 Ghana becomes the 9th country to join the Commonwealth.
31 August 1957. Malaysia becomes the 10th country to join the Commonwealth.
15 – 28 July 1959, Oxford, United Kingdom. The meeting of Education ministers was convened in recognition of ” the great importance of education and training as an indispensable condition of development. It is an objective of Commonwealth countries that their people should be able to share as widely as possible in the advantages of education of all kinds and at all levels”.
1 October 1960. Nigeria becomes the 11th country to join the Commonwealth.
South Africa withdraws from the Commonwealth, after pressure from member states against its apartheid policies.
9 December 1961. United Republic of Tanzania becomes the 14th country to join the Commonwealth.
6 August 1962. Jamaica becomes the 15th country to join the Commonwealth.
31 August 1962. Trinidad and Tobago becomes the 16th country to join the Commonwealth.
9 October 1962. Uganda becomes the 17th country to join the Commonwealth.
21 September 1964. Malta becomes the 20th country to join the Commonwealth
Housed in Marlborough House in London, UK, the Commonwealth Secretariat was set up to be at the service of all Commonwealth Governments and as a visible symbol of the spirit of co-operation which animates the Commonwealth.
Arnold Smith of Canada becomes the first Commonwealth Secretary-General and served from 1965 to 1975.
4 – 13 October 1965, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. Ministers concluded that “adequate medical services are an essential foundation of social and economic progress in developing countries. The Conference therefore took as its purpose a thorough review of the existing co-operation between Commonwealth countries in the fields of medicine and health and an examination of how this co-operation can be strengthened and extended.”
Housed in Marlborough House in London, UK, the Commonwealth Foundation was set up to administer the interchanges between Commonwealth organisations in professional fields throughout the Commonwealth.
26 April – 3 May 1966, London, United Kingdom. The meeting reviewed arrangements for the extradition of fugitive offenders within the Commonwealth and recommended the creation of a Legal Section within the Commonwealth Secretariat.
26 May 1966. Guyana becomes the 24th country to join the Commonwealth.
13 – 16 June 1966, London, United Kingdom. “It was agreed that Commonwealth countries should act in concert wherever possible in wider international organisations concerned with international trade and trade policy.”
6 September 1968. Swaziland (now Kingdom of Eswatini) becomes the 29th country to join the Commonwealth.
28 August 1970. Samoa becomes the 32nd country to join the Commonwealth.
10 October 1970 Fiji becomes the 33rd country to join the Commonwealth.
The Fund puts the skills of Commonwealth member countries at each other’s disposal.
14 – 22 January 1971 First meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM).
18 April 1972 Bangladesh becomes the 34th country to join the Commonwealth.
16 – 19 October 1972, Ottawa, Canada. The meeting considered comparative techniques of government across the Commonwealth and tasked the Secretariat with establishing procedures for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings which would ensure ‘flexibility, informality and the opportunity to engage in frank discussion of common problems, even from opposing standpoints.’
29 January 1973, Lusaka, Zambia. Ministers met to consider the creation of a Commonwealth Youth Programme.
2 – 10 August 1973 The second meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. The summit issued a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water.
7 February 1974 Grenada becomes the 36th country to join the Commonwealth.
29 April –6 May 1975
Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal QC of Guyana served as Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1975 to 1990.
28 Jun 1976 Seychelles becomes the 38th country to join the Commonwealth.
Canada proposed that a “simultaneously observed Commonwealth Day would focus attention upon the association and its contribution to a harmonious global environment”.
8 –15 June 1977
7 July 1978 Solomon Islands becomes the 39th country to join the Commonwealth.
1 October 1978 Tuvalu becomes the 40th country to join the Commonwealth.
1 – 7 August 1979
18 April 1980 Zimbabwe becomes the 45th country to join the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth sets up a ‘Small States Office’ in New York, so that small states can take part in UN negotiations.
21 September 1981 Belize becomes the 47th country to join the Commonwealth.
30 September – 7 October 1981
1 June 1982, Geneva, Switzerland. Meeting in Geneva in the wings of the International Labour Conference ministers discussed the effect of the world recession on employment, particularly its impact on young people and women who were disproportionately affected.
23-29 November 1983
Commonwealth Action Group on Cyprus set up to assist UN Security Council efforts to resolve hostilities in Cyprus.
13 July 1985, Nairobi, Kenya. Ministers considered means to empower national machineries and the bodies responsible for ensuring government policies and programmes addressed the needs of women.
16-22 October 1985
3-5 August, 1986 The leaders of seven Commonwealth member countries gathered to consider the report of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, Mission to South Africa. They concluded that there had not been adequate progress and agreed a programme of economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa.
13-17 October 1987
Fiji’s membership of the Commonwealth lapses after it declares itself a republic following a military coup.
Pakistan rejoins the Commonwealth after an absence of 17 years.
18-24 October 1989
21 March 1990
Namibia becomes the 52nd country to join the Commonwealth.
16 – 21 October 1991
Male, Maldives, 10 -12 May 1992. The discussions explored ways in which Ministries of Youth could be strengthened and the effectiveness of youth literacy and community service schemes improved.
New York, Unites States of America, 22 June 1993. The Secretary-General convened the meeting of Environmental officials at Ministerial level to strengthen Commonwealth dialogue and cooperation on sustainable development.
21-25 October 1993
The Victoria Falls Declaration of Principles for the Promotion of the Human Rights of Women.
South Africa rejoins The Commonwealth following the end of apartheid. “The Commonwealth was proud to have been so closely associated with the cause of ending apartheid, for which Nelson Mandela sacrificed so many years of his life in prison,” – Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma in a speech that marked the 20 year anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from incarceration.
1 November 1995. Cameroon becomes the 53rd country to join the Commonwealth.
10-13 November 1995
12 November 1995. Heads of Government issued the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Plan on the Harare Declaration in New Zealand.
13 November 1995. Mozambique becomes the 54th country to join the Commonwealth.
“The Commonwealth responded warmly to the wish of the people of Fiji that their country resume its membership of the Commonwealth now that a new constitution has been approved which enjoys national consensus and which conforms with the Commonwealth’s Harare principles.” – Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku.
24-27 October, 1997
At their Edinburgh meeting Heads of Government received and endorsed a report from the Intergovernmental Group on Criteria for Commonwealth Membership.
Created at the 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in South Africa, the Chairperson-in-Office plays a representational role in intergovernmental organisations, during periods between Heads of Government meetings. In 2002, the role was extended to include Good Offices of the Secretary-General.
26 April 1999 marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of London where leaders agreed that Commonwealth members are “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”.
“The Commonwealth rejoices with the Nigerian people as they enter this new era. This fresh start is a victory for democracy, a victory for Nigeria – and a victory for a fundamental principle of the Commonwealth.” – Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku.
CMAG unanimously condemn the unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected Government of Pakistan as a serious violation of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political principles.
11-20 November, 1999. Theme: Globalisation & People-Centred Development
Following the overthrow of the elected government, Fiji Islands suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth pending the restoration of democracy and the rule of law.
Sir Don McKinnon of New Zealand served as Commonwealth Secretary-General from 2000 to 2008.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon warmly welcomed the completion of the parliamentary elections held in Fiji Islands from 25 August to 5 September 2001.
Zimbabwe is suspended from Commonwealth councils following the presidential election, which was marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and during which the conditions did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors.
Commonwealth Chairpersons’ Committee on Zimbabwe set up by CHOGM “to determine appropriate Commonwealth action on Zimbabwe” after a highly adverse report on the Presidential elections by Commonwealth observers.
24 July 2002, Manchester, United Kingdom. Government ministers responsible for sport in the Commonwealth met on 24 July 2002 in Manchester on the eve of the XVIIth Commonwealth Games. Participants affirmed their commitment to the development of sport and sporting co-operation in three key areas: Anti-doping, social cohesion and women in sport.
14 September 2002, New York, United States of America. Secretary-General Don McKinnon stated that “with more than half of the Commonwealth’s membership made up of small states, there was concern among foreign ministers about the increasing vulnerabilities of these countries and their ability to compete in the globalised world.”
6-9 October, 2002. Theme: The Commonwealth in the 21st Century: Continuity & Renewal
Following the CHOGM Statement on Zimbabwe, the Government of Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth.
5-8 December, 2003. Theme: Development & Democracy: Partnership for Peace & Prosperity
The Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles govern issues such as the harmonious balancing of power and the interaction between parliament, the executive and the judiciary in democratic societies. They set out in detail the consensus arrived at by representatives of the three branches of government in the Commonwealth on how each of their national institutions should interrelate in the exercise of their institutional responsibility.
Pakistan’s suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth in 1999 is lifted.
“Genuine democratic elections are an expression of sovereignty, which belongs to the people of a country, the free expression of whose will provides the basis for the authority and legitimacy of government.”
21 July 2005. Declaration of the Nairobi Meeting of Commonwealth National Committees on International Humanitarian Law.
The Revised Agreed Memorandum on the establishment and functions of the Commonwealth Secretariat was first published at the conclusion of the 1965 meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London. Later amended by member governments following the 2002 meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Australia, it was most recently revised following the enactment of the International Organisations Bill in the United Kingdom.
25-27 November, 2005. Theme: Networking the Commonwealth for Development
26 – 27 October 2006, Sydney, Australia. The aim of the Forum was to advance public sector development in the Commonwealth, modernise governance for integrated service delivery, renew human resources for leadership development and bridge the digital divide for networked government.
‘Civil Paths to Peace’ is the result of a mandate from Commonwealth leaders to look into the causes of conflict, violence and extremism in Commonwealth countries.
Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth, following a decision of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), 22 November 2007 in Kampala, Uganda. The decision follows CMAG’s statement of 12 November to suspend Pakistan if it failed to fulfil its obligations in accordance with Commonwealth principles.
23-25 November 2007. Theme: Transforming Societies to Achieve Political, Economic and Human Development
Heads of Government reviewed the recommendations of the Committee on Commonwealth Membership from 1997 and agreed on core criteria for Membership.
10 March 2008. Secretary-General Don McKinnon said that “A far-reaching Commonwealth report in the 1980s led to the 1989 Langkawi Declaration on the environment, in which our Heads of Government said that ‘any delay in taking action to halt this progressive deterioration will result in permanent and irreversible damage’.
1 April 2008. Kamalesh Sharma of India becomes the fifth Commonwealth Secretary-General.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which addresses serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s values and principles, said on 12 May 2008 that it had lifted Pakistan’s suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth with immediate effect.
Heads met in London from 9-10 June 2008, and then again In New York on 24 September 2008. They aimed to “identify underlying principles and the actions that should be taken, as a global priority, to achieve reform of international institutions and lead to new institutions where necessary.”
The Eminent Persons Group was established by Commonwealth Heads of Government at their summit in November 2009. The group’s goals are to sharpen the impact, strengthen the networks, and raise the profile of the Commonwealth.
9 March 2009. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “the essence of a team is that – like the Commonwealth – its members know the advantage of working together and the strength of mutual support. The essence of a team also is that it has shared aspirations and a sense of common purpose, and relies on the range of contributions and different strengths of each of its members.”
27 – 29 November 2009. Theme: Partnering for a more Equitable and Sustainable Future
29 November 2009. Rwanda becomes the 55th country to join the Commonwealth.
8 March 2010. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “In the Commonwealth, we place great emphasis on ensuring that progress embraces all. It is well recognised that science and technology are integral to our future as a global community, and that future possibilities are beyond our present imagining.”
14 March 2011. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “Women are the barometers of society: they are an indication of its internal pressure levels, and their fortunes can be the clearest forecasts of good or bad things to come. Where women prosper, societies prosper; and where women suffer, so too do the societies in which they live.”
28 – 30 October 2011. Theme: Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience
12 March 2012. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “‘Connecting Cultures’ is about appreciating and celebrating these ways in which others live their lives and express themselves. It is about exploring how we can bring cultures together, how we can connect them in order to learn, to deepen the appreciation we have of one another.”
The Charter expresses the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth. The Charter also acknowledges the role of civil society in supporting the goals and values of the Commonwealth.
11 March 2013. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “The Commonwealth is a unique enterprise. We work together to open up new prospects for individuals and communities, and through national, regional, and international endeavour.”
15 – 17 November 2013. Theme: Growth with Equity; Inclusive Development
10 March 2014. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “the essence of a team is that – like the Commonwealth – its members know the advantage of working together and the strength of mutual support. The essence of a successful team – such as the Commonwealth – is that together it achieves more than the sum of its parts.”
Fiji was reinstated as a full member of the Commonwealth following a decision by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) at their 44th meeting in New York.
9 March 2015. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma stated, “Youth and progress through innovation are at the heart of the Commonwealth. New approaches and fresh thinking help us to realise our potential, and continually to replenish the collective wisdom that is our shared Commonwealth inheritance, and a rich resource adding global value.”
27-29 November 2015. Theme: Adding Global Value
The Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform (OCCJR) supports Commonwealth countries in delivering access to justice and sustainable development through the creation of fair and effective national laws.
14 March 2016. In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that “taking strength from its diversity, the Commonwealth succeeds in creating common ground on which to stand together in answering the challenges of our times.”
In a breakthrough for gender equality in the Commonwealth, The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC of Dominica was selected new Secretary-General – the first woman to hold the post.
Launched by Her Majesty The Queen the Commonwealth Hub brings Commonwealth organisations together in the same location to create a collaborative, dynamic and innovative way of working.
In line with the mandate given by leaders at their Malta summit, a dedicated unit was established within the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2017 to support national strategies to counter violent extremism (CVE).
13 March 2017. “Deep-rooted and resilient, Commonwealth solidarity bears us up individually and collectively. It helps us in troubled and troubling times to make the world a safer place.” – Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.
8 February 2018. The Gambia today rejoined the Commonwealth, almost five years after leaving the organisation. The West Africa nation’s return was marked by a flag-raising ceremony at Marlborough House, the London headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
12 March 2018. Secretary-General Patricia Scotland stated, “By agreeing to protect the health of oceans and marine life, and to use the precious resources they yield in responsible and sustainable ways, we will be sharing more fairly the benefits they bestow, and preserving these for future generations.”
16-20 April 2018. Theme: Towards a Common Future
11 March 2019. The Secretary-General Patricia Scotland recalled how “From its earliest beginnings, and through successive stages of expansion and development, the Commonwealth has been a pioneer of invention and innovation, with diversity and inclusiveness as watchwords.”
The modern Commonwealth came into being 70 years ago with the London Declaration, signed on 26 April, 1949. Across the Commonwealth, organisations are celebrating the 70th Anniversary with a series of events, conferences, competitions and workshops throughout the next year.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said: “We are delighted to welcome the country and its people back to the Commonwealth. The reform process underway in Maldives aligns with the values and principles of the Commonwealth and we encourage the nation to continue on this path.”
The theme for the 2020 Commonwealth Day, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), and for the work of the Commonwealth more generally is ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2022 took place during the week of 20 June 2022, in Kigali, Rwanda.
CHOGM was due to take place in June 2020 but was postponed twice due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: TheCommonwealth.org/CHOGM
Gabon becomes the 55th country to join the Commonwealth in June 2022 after the country’s application was approved by Heads of Government at the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Kigali, Rwanda.
Togo becomes the 56th country to join the Commonwealth in June 2022 after the country’s application was approved by Heads of Government at the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Kigali, Rwanda.
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The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political associations of states. Its roots go back to the British Empire, when countries around the world were ruled by Britain.