Sunday, 19 February 2012

Barbados - a realm in the Commonwealth of Nations

Barbados has, arguably, had a closer relationship with Britain than any of the other Caribbean islands.  The island was often referred to as 'Little England' and, like many former colonies of the British Empire, Barbados has retained elements of British culture, whether it's use of the English language, education and legal systems which are based on the British ones or the fact that Bajans drive on the left!  It should come as no surprise to find out that Barbados is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, an inter-governmental organisation, that promotes goodwill and mutual respect between nations, most of which were part of the British Empire. 

The meaning of Commonwealth

I think the word commonwealth has become so synonymous with the Commonwealth of Nations (usually just called the Commonwealth) that we've stopped thinking about the meaning of this word.  When you think about it 'common wealth' sounds a bit like socialism, ie. that wealth should be shared amongst all of the nations' inhabitants.  One of the most famous commonwealths of history was Cromwell's commonwealth, which disestablished the monarchy and, effectively, made Britain into a republic.  The term 'common wealth' has a lot in common with the Latin res publica (public things) and the two terms are interchangeable in some contexts, which surprised me.

Commonwealths past and present

Commonwealths have existed in the past, where citizens have created a republic which, although it may have paid tribute to a monarch, was essentially run by and for the people.  Past commonwealths existed in places like Iceland and during the Polish-Lithuanian union.  Four US states; Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania are commonwealths and some nations officially use the title commonwealth, eg. the Commonwealth of the Bahamas (still, it doesn't quite have the same ring as the People's Republic of the Bahamas!).  When I lived in Uzbekistan in 2001, I discovered that I was living in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - an organisation committed to co-operation between ex-Soviet Socialist Republics. 

The Commonwealth of Nations flag
The Commonwealth of Nations

Formerly known as the British Commonwealth, the Commonwealth of Nations is very much a successor to the British Empire and membership of this Commonwealth is predominantly based on a nation's status as an ex-British colony.  Things have changed in recent years and countries like Mozambique and Rwanda, which were never part of the British Empire, have been admitted to the Commonwealth. 

You might wonder what the point of the Commonwealth is, but it helps to think about the fact that the Commonwealth nations have a combined population of more than 2 billion people (although if India ever left, this would change dramatically).  There's also a lot of wealth in the Commonwealth and the GDPs of Britain, Canada, Australia and India alone are a major chunk of the world's economy. 

Terminology of the Commonwealth family

Kamalesh Sharma on a visit to Pakistan by ComSec
I've been learning some new terminology related to the Commonwealth, the first one being the Commonwealth Family.  As I understand it, this refers to a range of organisations that promote co-operation between Commonwealth countries, not just in terms of trade, but also in the fields of education, law, sport, diplomacy etc.  One the most famous members of the Commonwealth Family is the Commonwealth Games, a sporting event modelled on the Olympics.  The next Commonwealth Games will take place in Glasgow in 2014. 

Queen Elizabeth II is recognised as the symbolic head of the Commonwealth and, originally, the Commonwealth (quite ironically) excluded member nations that were republics.  This all changed when India became a republic in 1950.  Nowadays, the majority of the Commonwealth's 54 nations are republics and only 16 of the Commonwealth's countries also have the Queen as their Head of State.  These 16 countries, which included Barbados, as well as countries like Australia, Canada and the UK, are known as Commonwealth Realms.

As Commonwealth countries don't see each other as foreign nations, they don't have embassies or ambassadors in each others countries, but instead have High Commissions and High Commissioners.  It's playing with words, perhaps, but I'm sure the words carry some kind of legal import. 

Commonwealth HQ in London by ComSec
Ireland in the Commonwealth?

Over the years several nations, like Pakistan and Nigeria, have been suspended from the Commonwealth, usually because of political troubles or human rights violations.  Fiji is currently suspended from the Commonwealth and I'm sure most people will be aware of the tension between South Africa and other Commonwealth nations during the Apartheid period.  Other countries, like Zimbabwe, have chosen to leave the Commonwealth.  Even more countries, like Algeria, the Sudans and Yemen are currently applying for membership.

Ireland became a republic in 1949, before Indian independence changed the status of republics in the Commonwealth. This act was enough to sever Ireland's relationship with (what was then), the British Commonwealth.  I think Ireland's refusal to recognise the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth probably had a lot to do with it as well.  I can't help but wonder whether or not Ireland has missed out on a great opportunity for international collaboration and trade.  I'm sure we've managed to maintain good relations with many of the Commonwealth nations, in any case, but I wonder if the 21st century Commonwealth of Nations would be a much friendlier organisation for Ireland to be a part of? 

La Francophonie

As part of my research, I was also surprised to find that there is a French version of the Commonwealth of Nations, called La Francophonie.  It seems to concentrate mostly on promotion of French language, but seems to have a parallel 'family' that looks at different kinds of collaboration.  Like the anglophone Commonwealth, la Francophonie also addresses issues like human rights. 

Image credits:

The flag of the Commonwealth is in the public domain and copyright-free. 

All other images have been shared on Flickr by the Commonwealth Secretariat (flickr user ComSec).  The Secretariat is the 'civil service' of the Commonwealth of Nations.  You can see more images on ComSec's photostream and you can find out more about the Commonwealth at the organisation's official website
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