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Our history

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.

The early Commonwealth

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.

Birth of the modern 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.

The modern Commonwealth

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 2 countries to join the Commonwealth - Rwanda and Mozambique - have no historical ties to the British Empire.

The Commonwealth Secretariat was created in 1965 as a central intergovermental organisation to manage the Commonwealth's work.

Revised Memorandum of Understanding

12 May 2005

The 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, April 2005.

Commonwealth at 70 Commonwealth at 70 logo

26 April 2019

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. 

All Commonwealth Declarations

Commonwealth Day, 2019 - A Connected Commonwealth A Connected Commonwealth motif

11 March 2019

11 March 2019,   Reflecting on 70 years of the modern Commonwealth, 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.” Find out more

First simultaneously observed Commonwealth Day An invitation from the Secretary General to celebrate Commonwealth Day in 1977

14 March 1977

Canada proposed that a “simultaneously observed Commonwealth Day would focus attention upon the association and its contribution to a harmonious global environment”. So with the deliberate focus on reaching a young audience the second Monday in March was selected as one when all Commonwealth children would be in school. Thus 14 March 1977 became the first simultaneous observance across all the Commonwealth.

The Gambia rejoins the Commonwealth Flag of The Gambia

8 February 2018

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. 

Commonwealth Day, 2008 - Our Environment, Our Future. Commonwealth Day 2008 theme, Our Environment, Our Future

10 March 2008

10 March 2008 In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Don McKinnon said that "long before it was fashionable last century, the Commonwealth had already entered the debate about a world that was changing before our eyes. 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’.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Mini Summit, 2008 Eleven men in business wear, five sitting and the other six standing behind them

9 June 2008

Heads met in London from 9-10 June 2008, and then again In New York on 24 September 2008. Concerned that the "current architecture of international institutions no longer responds adequately to the challenges of the twenty-first century." 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."

Read the Marlborough House Statement on Reform of International Institutions

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Mini Summit, London, United Kingdom, 3-5 August, 1986 Eminent Persons Meeting, Marlborough House, London 1986

3 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 has not been the adequate concrete progress that we looked for.” And agreed a programme of economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. 

 

Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform established Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform logo

1 January 2016

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. The Office makes available good legislation practice from across the Commonwealth through model laws, standards, templates, legal insight, and legal networks. It delivers technical assistance to member countries based on these resources. The Office is informed by a high-level panel of distinguished Commonwealth legal experts.

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