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What is the future of the Commonwealth after Elizabeth?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
September 14, 2022

For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II played a key role in keeping the Commonwealth going. Her death raises questions in some Asian member states as to what the future holds for this family of nations.

A statue of Queen Elizabeth with the Australian flag at half-mast in the background
Queen Elizabeth served as head of the Commonwealth, a role that has now passed to King Charles IIIImage: Lukas Coch/AP/dpa/picture alliance

After the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, her eldest son Charles became not only king of the United Kingdom but also the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association made up of 56 member countries — most former British colonies — spanning Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.   

It includes 15 realms, including nations like the UK, Canada and Australia, where the British monarch remains head of state.

But membership to the club was not contingent on recognizing the British monarch as the head of state.

So, of the remaining 41 member states of the Commonwealth, 36 are republics, including nations such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The other five — Brunei Darussalam, Lesotho, Malaysia, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and Tonga — have their own monarchs.

The grouping is home to over 2.5 billion people — about a third of the world's population — the bulk of whom live in the Indian subcontinent. It contains both advanced economies and developing countries.

Despite its ties to the British Empire, any country can join the modern Commonwealth. The last two countries to join the grouping were Gabon and Togo in 2022.

What is the Commonwealth's relevance in today's world?

Supporters of the organization say holding this grouping together are shared traditions, institutions, and experiences, as well as economic self-interest.

But critics argue the Commonwealth has lost its sense of purpose and there are questions hanging over its future.

Queen Elizabeth II with her guests when she entertained the Commonwealth Prime Ministers to dinner at Buckingham Palace in 1962
The Commonwealth is made up of 56 member countries, spanning Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the PacificImage: PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

Amitabh Mattoo, a renowned international relations expert based in Delhi, believes that although the Commonwealth may seem like an "outdated antediluvian forum" after the death of the queen, "it retains a niche relevance which has sustained it over time even after the decolonization of the British Empire."

"We are living in the age of multilateral diplomacy, where states want a podium to express their views, advance their interests and shape global norms. With its diverse membership drawn from across continents, the Commonwealth provides precisely such a forum," Mattoo told DW.

"It is, in short, a platform to express views and shape world opinion. The monarch is only the symbolic head, the leaders of the free world make the Commonwealth work," he added.

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, a constitutional lawyer from Sri Lanka, maintains that for the bloc to remain relevant, it must advocate democratic values and rights of citizens over and above realpolitik that generally dominates conversations between states.

"That must be evidenced in a manner that goes beyond mere pontification from London. Otherwise, this grouping becomes a talk shop. That has unfortunately been the case often in recent years," she said.

The lawyer believes the Commonwealth will maintain its relevance only if it becomes an active partner in fostering the rule of law.

Shifting priorities?

The leaders of the group's member states meet once every two years for a summit, hosted by different member countries on a rotating basis.

Since 1971, a total of 25 meetings have been held, with the most recent being in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2022.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is based in London and is a central intergovernmental organization to manage the organization's work.

Throughout her reign, the queen played a key role in championing the forum and its relevance. And now it's up to King Charles III to handle the difficult task of stewarding the organization, and its member states, which have disparate political, social and economic interests.

Asif Islam, a media commentator and associate editor of Bangladesh's Dhaka Tribune newspaper, says the Commonwealth will likely remain important to Bangladesh for the same reasons that it has historically been important. He noted that the principles the Commonwealth has championed are aligned with Bangladesh's own values.

"If Elizabeth II's age was about democracy, the rule of law and good governance, responding to climate change will define King Charles' era. The Commonwealth's importance to Bangladesh is not so evident in dollar terms but is invaluable in terms of political and moral capital," Islam told DW.

"Bangladesh and a great many Commonwealth states will have good reason to use the platform to influence the future of the emerging world economy," he added. 

One of King Charles' biggest challenges?

Nevertheless, some say that the organization has achieved nothing substantial and it's time for London to accept the reality and shut the organization down.

"Britain must accept reality and not try to cling onto something which has lost its value and take the initiative and dispense the Commonwealth with dignity," Ranjeet Baral, a doctor based in Nepal's capital Kathmandu, told DW.

Lee Boon Chye, a Malaysian politician belonging to the People's Justice Party, said Malaysians should rethink their nation's membership of the club, pointing out its colonial legacy.

He stressed that the history of colonization was a history of exploitation and brutal subjugation of indigenous peoples.

"The Commonwealth is formed by the British empire and former colonies with the British monarch as the head. Its very existence is legitimizing colonization. We, as a sovereign nation, should focus on our international relationships in other platforms such as the UN, ASEAN and other bodies," said Lee.

Given the divided views on the purpose and future of the Commonwealth, leading the club is perhaps one of the biggest challenges King Charles will face during his reign.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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