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PANORAMA: 1997

The Commonweatlth Heads Toward the Millennium
by Alan Osborn

In a world of increasingly sophisticated communications and rapidly changing economic patterns, the Commonwealth may be about to play a moresignificant role in the lives of its citizens than at any time for a generation or more.

This seems particularly true in Britain where the ``UK Year of the Commonwealth'' has been welcomed by the Government and by institutions as aspur to give the Commonwealth a much sharper focus in British life.

David French, the newly appointed Director General of the Commonwealth Institute, whose role is to promote the Commonwealth within Britain, commented that "the Commonwealth has all the characteristics of organisations that will flourish and succeed in the 21st century - that is to say it's very light on structure and very strong on networks. That's the most powerful thing that could be possibly said about it and for me a very hopeful sign of the future''.

The Commonwealth is today as close to a family of nations as the modern world can deliver. There are 53 members, astonishingly diverse in their wealth, geography and culture yet bound by a common belief in democracy, respect for human rights and the fight against poverty and injustice. Growing from a handful of British colonies in the 19th century, the Commonwealth now has a population of 1.6 billion - a quarter of the world's and exists in every corner of the globe. Of the 53 members, 16 are constitutional monarchies which recognise Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State, 32 are republics and five have their own monarchs.

But the Commonwealth is less an alliance of governments than it is of peoples - an informal network of non-governmental organisations, professional groups and committed individuals, linked through the Commonwealth Foundation.

The Commonwealth itself is run by a 360-strong secretariat which serves as the focal point for its members. Based in London, the Secretariat is staffed by 30 countries under the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku from Nigeria.

All member countries contribute to the budget on an agreed scale but theCommonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC) which provides hands-on expertise, advice and training to countries in need depends on voluntary contributions. A number of more specialised bodies such as the Commonwealth Youth Programme and the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) are also located in London but the Commonwealth of Learning which fosters distance education is in Vancouver in Canada.

Between them the Commonwealth institutions offer valuable instruction indemocratic technical and legal procedures particularly at times of elections. More than 50 experts, for instance, helped South Africa in itshistoric 1994 elections.

The Commonwealth is rich in natural resources, producing more than half the world's exports of cocoa, jute, rubber. tea, bauxite, nickel and tin. But all but four of its members are classed as developing countries and 14 have an average Gross National Product of less than 500 dollars per head.

Economic development is thus a key aspect of the Commonwealth's work. Experts advise poorer members on debt problems, restructuring, privatisation, unemployment, food production, trade and exporting and theencouragement of private enterprise.

The Commonwealth also serves as a forum for sharing scientific skills through the CSC, for cooperation in education and for mutual assistance in the fight against crime. Shared sport is a an outstanding Commonwealth tradition. The Commonwealth Games, held every four years, are a major event on the international calendar, while cricket reigns supreme as the ''national game,'' played widely within the Commonwealth and almost nowhere outside it.

The Commonwealth's fundamental beliefs were set out in the 1971 Singapore Declaration which committed members to supporting the United Nations, promoting equal rights, fighting racism and colonial domination. The Harare Declaration of 1991 placed a new emphasis on open, efficient and fair government while pledging assistance for those countries embarking on democracy for the first time.

Since Britain joined the European Union in 1973 the Commonwealth has inevitably assumed a lower profile in the UK. But a strong body of opinion in Britain regrets this, arguing that Britain's membership of the Commonwealth is unique among the European nations, offering a priceless opportunity for the UK to bridge the gap between the world's rich and poor. Now, as Britain prepares to host the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh from 24-27 October, there are clear signs of a change.

In a Mission Statement in May, the foreign secretary Robin Cook said that the Government would aim to ``strengthen the role of the Commonwealth, improve the prosperity of its members and improve the cooperation between members.''

The theme of CHOGM this year is ``Trade, Investment and Development: the Road to Commonwealth Prosperity.'' The government heads will also discuss the status of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and future membership.

The summit is expected to approve new criteria for Commonwealth entry, in effect largely codifying existing conventions. Countries will have to have an administrative or political connection with Britain or another member of the Commonwealth, be a sovereign independent state and abide by the basic Harare principles.

Beyond this, all members have to accept that the working language of theCommonwealth is English and that the Queen, as the symbol of the free association of the member countries, is the Head of the Commonwealth.

Yemen, Palestine and Rwanda have all expressed an interest in joining the Commonwealth. Fiji is likely to be re-admitted before the Edinburgh meeting.

Commonwealth Secretariat
Marlborough House, Pall Mall, London, United Kingdom, SW1Y 5HX
Telephone: +44 171 6385/6386
Fax: +44 171 839 9081

  

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