The Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states made up of the United Kingdom and a number of its former dependencies. It has no formal constitution or bylaws and members have no legal or formal obligations to one another. Instead, shared traditions, institutions and experiences, as well as economic self-interest, hold members together.
Although the Commonwealth’s roots are linked to the British Empire, today any country can join. Currently, 54 countries are members. In 2009, Rwanda became the most recent country to join the organisation. It is one of two members—the other is Mozambique—that do not have historic links to the UK.
The Commonwealth’s membership contains both advanced economies and developing nations. It has an overall combined population of 2.4 billion, 60 percent of whom are 29 or under.
Every two years the leaders of the Commonwealth countries meet at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The organisation has described the meeting as its highest consultative and policymaking gathering.
The 26th CHOGM was due to take place in Kigali, Rwanda, in June 2020. However, in April 2020, the Commonwealth announced that the meeting would be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Commenting on the decision, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, said that the pandemic had changed the course of modern history and that “we must be mindful of the risks large meetings pose to all”. She also joined the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, in stating that they looked forward to the meeting taking place in Rwanda once circumstances allowed.
A new date
On 23 September 2020, the Commonwealth announced that it had agreed a new date for the meeting. It is now planned for the week of 21 June 2021, with the leaders’ summit preceded by meetings for representatives from the Commonwealth networks for youth, women, civil society and business.
Highlighting the fact that the meeting would be the first to take place in Africa in over a decade, Baroness Scotland said:
Our meetings in Rwanda will give us a real opportunity to focus on our post Covid recovery, but we also know that the pandemic has not reduced the urgency with which global challenges such as climate change, the global economy, trade and sustainable development need to be dealt with decisively through multilateral cooperation and mutual support.
President Kagame stated that the meeting would be:
An exceptional occasion to deliberate together on the enormous technological, ecological, and economic challenges and opportunities facing the Commonwealth, particularly our young people, and which are all the more pressing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Commonwealth has confirmed a theme for the meeting: ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’. It also said leaders will “discuss how to deliver the things which were discussed at CHOGM 2018 in London”.
In 2018, the CHOGM theme was ‘Towards a Common Future’. Following the meeting, the leaders adopted a communiqué. This set out a series of political commitments and practical actions that had been agreed to. These commitments included:
- strengthening democratic institutions and building peace;
- promoting gender equality and inclusion;
- action on climate change and oceans;
- sustainable use of resources;
- commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention; and
- preventing and countering violent extremism and human trafficking.
The organisation published a Leaders’ Statement. This statement recognised the role of the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and thanked her for her duty and commitment to the role. Looking to the future, it said that the Prince of Wales would be the next Head of the Commonwealth.
The statement also highlighted some specific issues that the leaders had discussed and agreed on. For example, it stated that climate change poses a particular threat to small island developing states (SIDS), a number of which are Commonwealth members. It said that there is a need for urgent change to facilitate pre- and post-resilience building for these countries.
Commonwealth leadership positions
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the current Commonwealth Chair-in-Office. This role represents the Commonwealth at high-level international meetings. It also reinforces the Good Offices role of the Commonwealth Secretary-General. The term ‘Good Offices’ refers to the Commonwealth’s conflict prevention and resolution work.
The role rotates every two years, with the leader of the Commonwealth country that hosts the CHOGM assuming the role. Therefore, President Paul Kagame will become the Chair-in-Office at CHOGM 2021.
In addition, press reports have focused on the future of Baroness Scotland as the Commonwealth’s Secretary General. Her first four-year term was due to end in 2020, with a decision on her reappointment due at the postponed CHOGM. However, with the meeting delayed, so was the decision on whether to reappoint Lady Scotland for another four-year term.
In June 2020, the Times reported that Mr Johnson had written to Baroness Scotland to extend her contract until a full meeting of the Commonwealth could take place. However, it said that her contract would only be formally renewed for the next full term if there was consensus among Commonwealth members.
The Times argued that reaching a consensus could be challenging. It reported that some countries, including the UK, New Zealand and Australia, have raised concerns about her running of the Secretariat. However, other countries, particularly some of the smaller states, have seen her as a champion of their interests and support her reappointment.
Cover image by Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on Flickr.