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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.

Declaration on Strengthening Co-operation In International Humanitarian Law

2 February 2005

Declaration of the Nairobi Meeting of Commonwealth National Committees on International Humanitarian Law 21 July 2005

Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice Image of document

7 August 1979

Commonwealth Heads of Government issued the Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice on 7 August 1979 at their summit in Lusaka, Zambia.

Millbrook Commonwealth Action Plan on the Harare Declaration Image of document

12 November 1995

Heads of Government issued the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Plan on the Harare Declaration in New Zealand on 12 November 1995.

Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers Commonwealth Election Observers

1 February 2005

"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. The rights of citizens to vote and to be elected at periodic, genuine democratic elections are internationally recognized human rights. Genuine democratic elections serve to resolve peacefully the competition for political power within a country and thus are central to the maintenance of peace and stability. Where governments are legitimized through genuine democratic elections, the scope for non-democratic challenges to power is reduced..."

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Latimer Principles Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon at the launch Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the Three Branches of Government (May 2004)

2 March 2004

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. The Principles specify restraint in the exercise of power within their respective constitutional spheres so that the legitimate discharge of constitutional functions by other institutions are not encroached on.

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The Victoria Falls Declaration

1 January 1994

The Victoria Falls Declaration of Principles for the Promotion of the Human Rights of Women

Commonwealth Charter, signed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth. HM Queen Elizabeth II sitting at a white desk surrounded by people

1 January 2013

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.

Chair-in-Office position created by Commonwealth Heads of Government

1 January 1999

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 and contribute to strategic advocacy of Commonwealth positions in high-level international forums.

Commonwealth Heads of Government establish the Eminent Persons Group

1 January 2009

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.

Criteria for Commonwealth membership revised

27 November 2007

Heads of Government reviewed the recommendations of the Committee on Commonwealth Membership from 1997 and agreed on the following core criteria for Membership:

(a) an applicant country should, as a general rule, have had a historic constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member, save in exceptional circumstances; 
(b) in exceptional circumstances, applications should be considered on a case-by-case basis; 
(c) an applicant country should accept and comply with Commonwealth fundamental values, principles, and priorities as set out in the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and contained in other 
subsequent Declarations; 
(d) an applicant country must demonstrate commitment to: democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the 
judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity; 
(e) an applicant country should accept Commonwealth norms and conventions, such as the use of the English language as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations, and acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth; and 
(f) new members should be encouraged to join the Commonwealth Foundation, and to promote vigorous civil society and business organisations within their countries, and to foster participatory democracy 
through regular civil society consultations.