Her Majesty The Queen welcomes the Commonwealth Heads of Government to Buckingham Palace for the formal opening of the summit.

What Is The Commonwealth?

Everything you need to know about one of the oldest political association of states in the world.

Her Majesty The Queen welcomes the Commonwealth Heads of Government to Buckingham Palace for the formal opening of the summit.

Her Majesty The Queen welcomes the Commonwealth Heads of Government to Buckingham Palace (Picture: British Army).

It is the 70th anniversary of the Commonwealth - one of the world's oldest political association of states.

The network is a voluntary association of independent and equal sovereign states.

As of 2019, 53 independent states are part of the Commonwealth and a total of 2.4 billion people.

Member countries are supported by a network of 80 intergovernmental, civil society, cultural and professional organisations. They include:

  • The Commonwealth Secretariat (supporting member states)
  • The Commonwealth Foundation (supporting civil society)
  • The Commonwealth of Learning (promoting learning and education)
  • The Commonwealth Games Federation (promoting sports)
The Queen at the formal opening of CHOGM in 2018 110319 CREDIT Commonwealth Secretariat
The Queen at the formal opening of CHOGM in 2018 (Picture: Commonwealth Secretariat).

What is the purpose of the Commonwealth?

Commonwealth member states share goals and values which are expressed in the Commonwealth Charter

Following an agreement dated December 2012, said goals and values can be summarised in 16 key areas:

  1. Democracy
  2. Human rights
  3. International peace and security
  4. Tolerance, respect and understanding
  5. Freedom of expression
  6. Separation of Powers
  7. Rule of Law
  8. Good governance
  9. Sustainable development 
  10. Protection of the environment
  11. Access to health, education, food and shelter
  12. Gender Equality
  13. Importance of young people in the Commonwealth
  14. Recognition of the needs of Small States
  15. Recognition of the needs of Vulnerable States
  16. The role of Civil Society
Commonwealth Flags during the Diamond Jubilee 110319 CREDIT Commonwealth Secretariat
Commonwealth flags in London during the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 (Picture: Richard Lewis/Commonwealth Secretariat).

What is the Commonwealth Secretariat?

Since it was established in 1965, the role of the Commonwealth Secretariat is to support member countries achieve development, democracy and peace.

The Secretariat provides training, technical assistance and support.

Experts and observers are often deployed from the Secretariat to member states to advise and provide solutions to national problems.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is also in charge of bringing together government leaders during the summits.

Priority areas of work are agreed at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, which occur every two years.

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s structure is split into three areas:

  1. Governance and Peace
  2. Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources
  3. Economic, Social and Sustainable Development
Queen's Baton Relay Commonwealth Games RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team Credit RAF Brize Norton
The RAF at the opening of the Commonwealth Games (Picture: RAF).

Which countries can join the Commonwealth?

In 2007, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, some core criteria were laid out in order to be able to regulate which states could apply to become Commonwealth members.

There are six core criteria:

  1. The applicant country should have a historic constitutional associationwith an existing Commonwealth member;
  2. In exceptional circumstances in which the previous point is not applicable, applications should be considered on a case-by-case basis;
  3. An applicant country should accept and comply withCommonwealth fundamental values, principles, and priorities;
  4. An applicant country must demonstrate a commitment to the 16 key areas of focus of the Commonwealth;
  5. 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; 
  6. New members should be encouraged tojoin the Commonwealth Foundation.
Images from the commonwealth observer mission to Vanuatu 2016 110319 CREDIT Commonweath Secretariat
Commonwealth observer mission to Vanuatu in 2016 (Picture: Commonwealth Secretariat).

For eligible countries, there is a membership process which has to be followed once the formal expression of interest to join is triggered. This includes:

  • An informal assessment undertaken by the Secretary-General following an expression of interest by an aspirant country;
  • Consultationby the Secretary-General with member states;
  • An invitation to the interested country to make a formal application; 
  • A formal application presenting evidenceof the functioning of democratic processes and popular support in that country for joining the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Day

Commonwealth Day replaced the former Empire Day.

The day is an annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations and is held on the second Monday in March.

The day has been celebrated across the Commonwealth every year since the 1970s.

In recent years, there has been a shift away from celebrating a single day towards celebrating a full week, with Commonwealth Day at its focus and first day.

The aim is to celebrate the unity, diversity and links of the modern Commonwealth and to foster greater understanding of the Commonwealth’s achievements and role.

Young people celbrate Commonwealth Day near Westminster 110319 CREDIT Commonwealth.
Commonwealth Day celebrations in 2019 (Picture: Commonwealth Secretariat).

A brief history of the Commonwealth

The roots of the Commonwealth go back to the times of the British Empire. At the time, some countries were ruled by Britain and considered the monarch as their own head of state.

1884 - 1930

In 1884, before becoming Prime Minister, Lord Rosebury was on a visit to Australia and referred to the British Empire as a "Commonwealth of Nations".

From the late 1890s until after the First World War, there were several international meetings to discuss the legal state of British dominions. 

Only in 1926, with the Imperial Conference, the UK and its dominion became equal in state.


For the first time in history, the British Empire Games were held. This happened in Canada and, later in the years, this sort of international competition morphed into the modern Commonwealth Games.


The Statute of Westminster officially gave legal status to the independence of Australia, Canada, Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa.

The same year, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa joined the Commonwealth.

1947 - 1959

More countries joined the Commonwealth during these years, with Pakistan being the first Asian country to join the association.

1960s - 1970s

Many African and Asian countries, as well as Malta and Cyprus, joined the Commonwealth.


For the first time in history, the Commonwealth countries observed the Commonwealth Day. Taking place on 14 March 1977, the day became the first simultaneous observance across all the Commonwealth.

1980s - 1990s

Countries continue to joint the Commonwealth throughout these years.


Heads of Government agreed that in order to become a member of the Commonwealth, an applicant country should have had a constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member.


Over the past two decades, more states have joined the Commonwealth and more international Commonwealth meetings have been organised and attended by heads of states. 

More recently, in 2017, the Commonwealth established a unit specialised in countering violent extremism.