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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.

Commonwealth library and archive

The Commonwealth library and archives are available for historical research and study at Marlborough House in London.

Stories from the Commonwealth archive

Rwanda joins the Commonwealth Flag of Rwanda

29 November 2009

29 November 2009

Rwanda becomes the 55th country to join the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth celebrates 60th anniversary Young men and women bear flags at the Commonwealth 60th anniversary celebrations

29 April 2009

Commonwealth celebrates 60th anniversary since the London Declaration was signed and the modern Commonwealth was born.

Pakistan's suspension from councils of the Commonwealth lifted Flag of Pakistan

12 May 2008

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.

Kamalesh Sharma becomes the fifth Commonwealth Secretary-General Close-up of Sir Kamalesh Sharma in a grey suit

1 April 2008

1 April 2008. Kamalesh Sharma of India becomes the fifth Commonwealth Secretary-General. "I take up office with confidence and enthusiasm. I am grateful to the leaders of our 53 member countries for the trust they have placed in me to carry forward the work of the Commonwealth," said Mr Sharma.

Fiji suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth flag of Fiji

1 January 2006

Fiji Islands suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth pending the restoration of democracy and the rule of law after the military takeover of Fiji's democratically elected government.

Commonwealth Chairpersons' Committee on Zimbabwe set up by CHOGM

19 March 2002

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. Zimbabwe suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth for one year with immediate effect after the Committee met.

Fiji suspension lifted Flag of Fiji

1 January 2001

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon warmly welcomed the completion of the parliamentary elections held in Fiji Islands from 25 August to 5 September 2001.

Fiji suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth Flag of Fiji

1 January 2000

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.

Don McKinnon becomes the fourth Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon speaking at a conference

1 January 2000

Sir Don McKinnon of New Zealand served as Commonwealth Secretary-General from 2000 to 2008

As Commonwealth Secretary-General, his achievements included:

  • Modernising the Commonwealth Secretariat's structure and internal organisation.
  • Enhancing the profile of the Commonwealth and ensuring that its work is better known by the general public.
  • Building strategic partnerships with other international organisations, as well as synergies with civil society, in pursuit of the values and objectives of the Commonwealth.
  • Putting young people at the heart of the Commonwealth's work, promoting youth programmes, particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS.
  • Defending the rights of small states, ensuring that their special vulnerabilities are recognised and their interests promoted on the international agenda.
  • Strengthening the work of the Commonwealth in promoting democratic practices, good governance and respect for human rights.
  • Promoting the establishment of a fair, rules-based multilateral trading system, ensuring that developing countries' interests are duly reflected in international trade talks.
  • Making a strong stand on the need for developed countries to reduce agricultural subsidies, giving developing countries a fair chance to trade their way out of poverty.

Pakistan suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth Flag of Pakistan

18 October 1999

CMAG unanimously condemn the unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected Government of Pakistan as a serious violation of the Commonwealth's fundamental political principles.