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What is The Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 independent countries.

It is home to 2.2 billion citizens and over 60 per cent of these are under the age of 30. The Commonwealth includes some of the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries, spanning five regions. Thirty-one of its members are small states, many of them island nations.

The Commonwealth’s guiding principles are outlined in its Charter.

Commonwealth policies are shaped by member countries, who have an equal say on decisions affecting them. Commonwealth organisations put these decisions and plans into action.

What is meant by the ‘modern Commonwealth’?

The Commonwealth’s roots go back to the British Empire when some countries were ruled directly or indirectly by Britain. Some of these countries became self-governing while retaining Britain’s monarch as Head of State. They formed the British Commonwealth of Nations.

In 1949 the association we know today – The Commonwealth – came into being.

In that year India became a republic but still wished to remain a member of the association. In response, leaders agreed that membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British Crown. Commonwealth members were “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress” - The London Declaration 1949.

Since then, independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined The Commonwealth.

Is there a voting system in The Commonwealth?

All decisions are reached by consensus by Commonwealth Heads of Government.

Who is Head of The Commonwealth?

HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Head of The Commonwealth’s role includes, a number of symbolic functions.

Who will be the next Head of The Commonwealth?

The choice of successive Heads will be made collectively by Commonwealth leaders.

How long can you be Head of The Commonwealth?

There is no maximum fixed term for the Head of The Commonwealth. 

Who is the Commonwealth Secretary-General?

Kamalesh Sharma

What are the Secretary-General’s duties?

The Secretary-General is responsible for representing The Commonwealth publicly and for the management of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

What are the Secretary-General’s Good Offices?

The term ‘Good Offices’ refers to conflict prevention and resolution work carried out in Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth Secretariat’s ongoing engagement with member countries helps identify early indications of conflict and, if conflict emerges or may be imminent, the Secretary-General’s Good Offices can be deployed – directly or through Special Envoys or staff – to work with all stakeholders and support ways to prevent or resolve it. In the longer term, such engagements also look at ways in which the root causes and symptoms of the conflict can be addressed.

How is the Commonwealth Secretary-General elected?

Candidates are nominated by Commonwealth governments in the months leading up to a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) when the post becomes vacant. A Restricted Session is held during CHOGM, open only to Commonwealth Heads of Government and other Commonwealth Heads of Delegation with ministerial status. The Commonwealth Chair-in-Office leads in determining which candidate has the greatest support among the 54 Commonwealth leaders, and may conduct one or more secret straw poll ballots to assist that process. Once a clearly supported candidate becomes apparent, the governments whose candidates are unsuccessful withdraw from the contest in order to achieve unanimous support by Commonwealth leaders for one candidate.

How long can you be Commonwealth Secretary-General?

Secretaries-General serve a maximum of two four-year terms.

Who are former Commonwealth Secretaries-Generals?

  • Don McKinnon of New Zealand (2000-2008)
  • Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria (1990-2000)
  • Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal of Guyana (1975-1990)
  • Arnold Smith of Canada (1965-1975)

Who is the Deputy Secretary-General and what do they do?

Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba is the Deputy Secretary-General.

This position supports the Secretary-General in the management and executive direction of the Commonwealth Secretariat and, alongside the Secretary-General, has supervisory responsibility for all Commonwealth Secretariat divisions and business units.

Who is the Chair-in-Office and what do they do?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia is the current Commonwealth Chair-in-Office.

The Chair-in-Office is the leader of the Commonwealth country that hosts a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The two-year role comes into effect at the start of the CHOGM.

The Chair-in-Office voices Commonwealth positions at high-level international forums and reinforces the Good Offices role of the Commonwealth Secretary-General. The term ‘Good Offices’ refers to conflict prevention and resolution work carried out in Commonwealth countries.

What is a Special Envoy?

A Special Envoy is not an employee of the Commonwealth Secretariat, but an eminent Commonwealth person, often a former head of state or government or senior minister. The role of Special Envoys is primarily to foster greater democratic space by facilitating political dialogue among political actors and civil society. In particular, Special Envoys aid in the development and implementation of political agreements in situations of crisis or potential conflict.

What is The Commonwealth symbol?

The Commonwealth symbol was originally designed by the Gemini News Service, London, in 1972 and approved by the first Commonwealth Secretary-General, Arnold Smith.

The symbol has changed a few times since then, including in the year 2000, when the then Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, approved a design that featured spears surrounding the original globe graphic in the shape of the letter ‘C’.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of spears did not represent the number of Commonwealth member countries.

In 2013, the Commonwealth symbol was redesigned to reflect our modern Commonwealth. Noticeable changes include the globe appearing tilted and a reduced number of spears. This was to ensure the symbol was clearly visible at smaller sizes and in different applications.

The symbol is used on all official documentation and, in some instances, in association with other specially developed logos for Commonwealth meetings.

What is The Commonwealth Mace?

The Commonwealth Mace was a gift from the Royal Anniversary Trust to The Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of her accession to the throne. The mace is surmounted by the Royal Coat of Arms and by The Commonwealth symbol and, in its middle portion, contains the enamelled flags of each Commonwealth country.

The mace is used in the presence of the Head of the Commonwealth at:

  • Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and on special Commonwealth occasions;
  • the annual multi-faith Commonwealth Day Observance at Westminster Abbey in London; and
  • the Commonwealth Day evening reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General.

There is also a matching set of 55 silver gilt toasting goblets each engraved with the respective member government’s national armorial bearings. The goblets are used at the banquet hosted by The Queen for Heads of Government at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

What is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting?

Every two years leaders of Commonwealth member countries meet to discuss issues of mutual concern and interest and agree on collective policies and initiatives. Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) are the principal policy and decision-making forum to guide the strategic direction of The Commonwealth. CHOGMs are organised by the country hosting the forum in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat.

After a formal opening ceremony and Executive Session, the leaders meet privately in a ‘retreat’ setting. The atmosphere is informal, encouraging a full and frank exchange of views, and decisions are reached by consensus.

The term Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was adopted at a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Singapore in 1971.

Dates of previous CHOGMs can be seen in Our History.

Visiting Marlborough House

Marlborough House on Pall Mall in London, UK, is a 300-year-old Royal Palace, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. In 1959 Head of the Commonwealth HM Queen Elizabeth ll placed the House at the disposal of the UK Government as a Commonwealth centre. It is now home to the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Foundation

Historical guided tours can be arranged subject to the availability of the Fine Rooms and the tour guide. Group tours can be arranged from Monday to Friday (except for Commonwealth Day - the second Monday of March - and UK public holidays) for a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 25 people. The tour lasts for two hours and focuses on the history of Marlborough House and the gardens. It also includes a brief talk on the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Tours cost £5.00 per person to cover the cost of the tour guide. 

For more information contact Letie Gannon:
Tel: +44 (0)20 7747 6491
Fax: +44 (0)20 7747 6529
Email: l.gannon@commonwealth.int

Note: Photography is not allowed in Marlborough House and security checks of visitors and their bags may be carried out.