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Our history

The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political association of states. Its 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. Since then, 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 two countries to join the Commonwealth - Rwanda and Mozambique - have no historical ties to the British Empire.

South Africa rejoins the Commonwealth Image of ANC President Nelson Mandela with Michael Manley, ex-Prime Minister of Jamaica and leader of the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) to the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa in 1994.

1 June 1994

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. South Africa’s return to the Commonwealth family - under Mr Mandela’s leadership in 1994 - was a moment of joy and vindication, and one which has greatly enriched our association" - Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma in a speech that marked the 20 year anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from incarceration.

Harare Commonwealth Declaration Image of group photo of Commonwealth Heads of Government at their summit in Harare, Zimbabwe

20 October 1991

The Harare Commonwealth Declaration sets the association's priorities for the 1990's and beyond. Strengthened emphasis on Commonwealth contribution to democracy, human rights and equality.

Emeka Anyaoku becomes the third Commonwealth Secretary-General

1 January 1990

Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria served as Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1990 to 2000.

Pakistan rejoins the Commonwealth Image of Pakistan flag

1 January 1989

Pakistan rejoins the Commonwealth after an absence of 17 years.

Commonwealth of Learning established Image of Lord Asa Briggs with James Maraj, President of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), and others

1 September 1988

Commonwealth governments sign a Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of The Commonwealth of Learning on 1 September 1988. Set up in Canada, its purpose is to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.

Fiji's membership of The Commonwealth lapses Image of the Fiji flag

15 October 1987

Fiji's membership of the Commonwealth lapses after it declares itself a republic following a military coup.

Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group visits Nelson Mandela Image of Nelson Mandela

16 March 1986

Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group visits Nelson Mandela in prison and sets out negotiating concept to end apartheid in South Africa peacefully.

Commonwealth Action Group on Cyprus Image of Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal with Spyros Kyprianou, President of Cyprus.

23 November 1983

Commonwealth Action Group on Cyprus set up to assist UN security council efforts to resolve Cyprus problem.

Commonwealth establishes 'Small States Office' in New York

1 July 1981

Commonwealth sets up a 'Small States Office' in New York, so that small states can take part in UN negotiations.

First election observation by Commonwealth

1 January 1980

Commonwealth group observes elections for the first time in newly independent Zimbabwe

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