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Numerous definitions can be applied to the term commonwealth. In its loosest form, the term means for the common or public good, and is often a state formed for the common good of the people. It can also apply to a group of nations that have a loose alliance for the good of all members of each nation.
Several US states have commonwealth designation. These are Virginia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. The designation was important as these states originally defined their governance in direct opposition to the governance of the British Empire. The designation now lacks meaning and has merely been retained as a salute to the past history of rebellion that freed the US from British rule.
Some US territories are also organized as commonwealths. These territories, like Puerto Rico, are not entitled to the same rights and benefits as recognized states. For example, Puerto Rico’s designation as a commonwealth implies an ongoing relationship with the US, but does not imply statehood.
One of the largest is the Commonwealth of Nations, nations formerly part of the British Empire. This group is headed by Queen Elizabeth II and implies fellowship, but not rule, over former British territories like New Zealand and Canada. The Commonwealth of Nations includes 53 nations, each with their own self-governance.
Another large commonwealth is the alliance of over 10 countries formerly belonging to the USSR. These ties can often help smaller countries gain larger political power because of the unifying force of the group. The commonwealth of this type, however, does not hold the same type of political power as, for example, the United Nations. But those countries belonging to the United Nations may gain strength by voting together for those issues which are likely to impact them most.
A commonwealth does not necessarily imply the same sort of government. Alliances connecting nations may be composed of monarchies, democracies and socialist states. Most often, the association is thought of as somewhat democratic or republic in principal, with a greater value on individual rights of people, and public influence in the political process.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is a Commonwealth?
A Commonwealth is a political community founded for the common good. Historically, the term has been used to denote a political body formed for the welfare of the public, such as the Commonwealth of England (1649–1660). In modern times, it often refers to a group of sovereign states that are connected by a common history and shared values, such as the Commonwealth of Nations, which includes countries that were once part of the British Empire.
How does the Commonwealth of Nations function?
The Commonwealth of Nations operates as an intergovernmental organization where member countries support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy, human rights, and development. It's a consensus-based body, which means decisions are made collectively. The Commonwealth Secretariat, its main institution, facilitates cooperation and organizes meetings, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where leaders discuss global and Commonwealth issues.
What are the benefits of being a member of the Commonwealth?
Member countries of the Commonwealth gain various benefits, including diplomatic and cultural ties, mutual support, and cooperation in areas like education, governance, and health. According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, members also benefit from trade advantages; intra-Commonwealth trade is projected to surpass $700 billion by 2020. Additionally, the Commonwealth Games provide a unique sporting event that fosters friendly competition and camaraderie among nations.
Are Commonwealth countries still under British rule?
No, Commonwealth countries are not under British rule. While the historical ties to the British Empire are a common thread, the modern Commonwealth is a voluntary association of sovereign states. Each member country operates independently and is free to make its own legal and governmental decisions. The Queen of the United Kingdom is recognized as the ceremonial Head of the Commonwealth, but this role does not confer any political or executive power over member countries.
Can countries join or leave the Commonwealth?
Yes, countries can join or leave the Commonwealth. Joining requires an applicant country to demonstrate commitment to the core values of the Commonwealth, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and to receive the approval of existing member states. Countries can also choose to leave the Commonwealth if they wish, as was the case with Zimbabwe in 2003, although they may reapply for membership, as Zimbabwe did in 2018.