COMMONWEALTH Day is celebrated worldwide every year on Monday, March 11. The Commonwealth consists of 53 countries with 2.4 billion people. After the United Nations, it is the most important grouping of nations. Unlike the United Nations, where an embroglio of national interests is usually played out, Commonwealth members try to find areas of cooperation. Though Commonwealth Day was originally celebrated for one day, of recent years there has been a shift to have a full week celebrated as Commonwealth Week, though still keeping a focus on the March 11 anniversary. The new custom of having a week arose because all the programmes could not have been accommodated in one day.
The theme of this year’s Commonwealth Day is, “A Connected Commonwealth” which emphasises friendship, goodwill and cooperation among Commonwealth members, celebrating their cultural diversity and mobilising their cooperation on matters which affect them and the world at large, such as protecting natural resources and the environment.
On Commonwealth Day, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth, always issues a statement which is broadcast worldwide. Her Majesty, though 90 years of age, has remained remarkably fit and alert. In her message which has always been morale-building and optimistic, she said that Commonwealth citizens can “look to the future with greater confidence and optimism as a result of the links we share . . . With enduring commitment through times of great change, successive generations have demonstrated that whilst the goodwill for which the Commonwealth is renowned may be intangible, the impact is very real.” A Guyanese or West Indian, because of our Commonwealth membership, would consider an Australian, Ghanian or Canadian as having closer affinity to ourselves than non-Commonwealth persons.
The Commonwealth evolved from the old British Empire. Early in the 20th century, Canada, Australia, New Zeeland and South Africa were recognised by the Mother Country Britain as having their own identities, if not nationalities and governed themselves in contrast to the Indian Empire and the colonies. These four countries were known as the Old Commonwealth or sometimes, the White Commonwealth.
After World War II, Britain had taken the decision to dismantle her empire and grant Independence to India and all the colonies. In this new dispensation, India was the first country which got its independence from which a new state, Pakistan, was carved out.
The Indians desired to keep their links with Britain and the other members of the empire and the Old Commonwealth and not to go the way of Ireland (Eire) or Burma, who had completely cut their links with Britain and the Old Commonwealth. In 1949, the formula for a new Commonwealth which could accommodate a republican India and other colonies yet to be independent was worked out and enshrined in the London Declaration, wherein the leaders agreed that the Commonwealth countries are “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely cooperating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.” Her Majesty the Queen was recognised as Queen of the Commonwealth, though countries which desired to retain the Queen as queen of their respective countries could do so. Several Caribbean countries chose to retain the Queen as Head of State for several years before becoming republics.
The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Patricia Scotland, though a British national, is of West Indian origin. In her message, she spoke of “the dynamism and inclusiveness of Commonwealth countries adding to the rich and continuing narrative of [the] Commonwealth Connection” and highlighted the Commonwealth Blue Charter where Commonwealth countries have successfully worked to safeguard the oceans.
Guyana has gained much from its Commonwealth membership and association. For example, with the Commonwealth scholarships, many Guyanese have been able to attend various Commonwealth universities, gaining higher degrees and specialised training. Several Guyanese have served and still serve at the Commonwealth
And Guyana’s great senior diplomat, Sir Shridath Ramphal, gave distinguished service for over 10 years as Commonwealth Secretary- General. Sir Shridath, as a native of Guyana, brought much prestige and respect to his country in the Commonwealth and in the comity of nations. But the greatest benefit Guyana has received from its Commonwealth membership is the support of the Commonwealth against Venezuela’s claim to Guyana’s territory.
For the last few years, Government, owing to its many distractions, had not been able to give its full attention to celebrating Commonwealth Day. We are of the opinion that Guyana could initiate the custom of exchanging Commonwealth Day greetings with other members. Symposia and lectures could be organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of Guyana. There would also be appropriate broadcasts on television and radio. The population may then be better informed about the Commonwealth and its value.