Common ideals: British Empire remnants confer on the future

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The heads of government of the 53-nation Commonwealth of Nations are meeting in Sri Lanka, with the venue itself causing a stir.

The Commonwealth, which was formalized in 1949, is roughly the heir of the former British Empire. It consists of nations that believe they share a history, culture and language — English. Mozambique and Rwanda are also members. Members also claim a common devotion to democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Adherence to these principles sometimes presents problems or suspensions. Nigeria and South Africa were suspended, then reinstated. Fiji is suspended now over non-democratic government. Gambia and Zimbabwe have withdrawn to avoid condemnation. Israel and Palestine, with their presence on former British-governed territory, would both have a claim on membership but have not applied.

The members’ combined population is more than 2.2 billion. Queen Elizabeth II is head of Commonwealth, although Prince Charles is attending the meeting in her place, given the distance to Sri Lanka and her age and health.

This year’s meeting, which opened Friday, is surrounded by controversy, based on host Sri Lanka’s human rights record in its civil war that ended in 2009 and claimed thousands of victims. The prime ministers of Canada, India and Mauritius are boycotting the meeting on that basis. British Prime Minister David Cameron is attending, but insisted on visiting the defeated rebel Tamil region, to make Britain’s point on human rights. Queen Elizabeth’s non-attendance is put down to other reasons, but the Sri Lankan government’s reputation undoubtedly played a role in her decision.

The Commonwealth plays a positive role in international relations, in that some of its members care what other members think about them. 

 In this way, given the basic values of the organization, it continues to perform a useful function.

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