The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), held every two years since 1971, are the association’s ultimate policy-and decision-making forum. The next meeting is scheduled to take place in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2013. The last meeting was held in Perth, Australia, in November 2011.
The Commonwealth summits have three broad objectives. First, they allow Commonwealth leaders to review international political and economic developments, to decide, where appropriate, what action the association will take, and then to issue a communiqué stating the Commonwealth position.
Second, leaders examine avenues for Commonwealth co-operation for development, considering both the work done over the previous two years, and agreeing priorities and programmes for the future.
Third, and this is implicit in all the deliberations, leaders see these summits as an opportunity to strengthen the sense of the Commonwealth itself, as an association which has characteristics of friendship, business partnership and stabilising ballast in a world of change and turmoil.
The Commonwealth summits, known as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (or CHOGMs), are held in different Commonwealth countries and organised by the host government and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Commonwealth summits have qualities which add up to something unique among gatherings of the leaders of states.
There is no other international forum where the leaders of a globally representative range of countries meet regularly for informal dialogue.
The deliberations of the Commonwealth summits are private and, by design, frank and informal. Each summit includes a ‘retreat’ held away from the conference room and in relaxing surroundings, intended to enhance understanding by allowing leaders to meet as friends. From these retreats have come agreements about Commonwealth action over some difficult issues.
Even in formal session, agreement at Commonwealth summits is reached by consensus, not voting. While the system has on occasion enabled one country or a small group of countries to paralyse action by the vast majority in its favour, it has in the longer term prevented the entrenching of views. Consensus, an older and more instinctive way for groups to reach agreement, has been retained to keep the ‘family’ together and avoid the development of factions or parties.
These techniques of dialogue developed when the Commonwealth was much smaller. As it has grown to 54 members, and as the extension of multiparty democracy has shortened the average life of national leadership, so that more new faces appear at each summit, the association has worked to retain these traditions.
The Commonwealth now represents, outside of the United Nations, the largest international forum bringing together so many countries from different points on the development spectrum. The association includes a few of the world’s richest nations, and many of its poorest; a handful of technologically advanced or rapidly advancing industrial nations, and many of its least developed.
Communiqués and declarations
Though the discussions are private, at the end of each meeting, Commonwealth leaders issue a communiqué recording their decisions. This is launched at a press conference chaired by the Head of Government hosting the meeting, accompanied by the Commonwealth Secretary-General.
Commonwealth leaders also issue declarations or statements on matters of particular concern
Today’s summits evolved, in stages, out of the Colonial Conferences of the late nineteenth century and Imperial Conferences of the early twentieth century. Here, the British Prime Minister and leaders of the Dominions met to discuss, in particular, constitutional issues, foreign affairs, defence and trade. From 1944 the summits were called Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meetings, but were still held in the UK, chaired by the UK Prime Minister and organised by the UK Commonwealth Office.
In 1966, at the time of the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the venue moved to another Commonwealth country for the first time. This was a special meeting in Lagos, Nigeria, called to discuss the constitutional crisis which followed the rebellion of a white minority party in Rhodesia. In 1971, when the first regular summit was held outside the UK – in Singapore – leaders also decided to change the name to Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings, as there were increasing numbers of republics headed by Presidents rather than Prime Ministers.
Since then, the summits have been held in every region, though not yet in every country. The chronology runs as follows:
- Singapore 1971
- Ottawa, Canada 1973
- Kingston, Jamaica 1975
- London, UK 1977
- Lusaka, Zambia 1979
- Melbourne, Australia 1981
- New Delhi, India 1983
- Nassau, The Bahamas 1985
- Vancouver, Canada 1987
- Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1989
- Harare, Zimbabwe 1991
- Limassol, Cyprus 1993
- Auckland, New Zealand 1995
- Edinburgh, UK 1997
- Durban, South Africa 1999
- Coolum, Australia 2002
- Abuja, Nigeria 2003
- Valletta, Malta 2005
- Kampala, Uganda 2007
- Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago 2009
- Perth, Australia, 2011
- Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2103
In addition to the special meeting at Lagos in 1966, another special meeting, of a representative group of seven leaders, was held in London in 1986 to discuss further Commonwealth action towards the ending of apartheid in South Africa.
More recently, a mini-summit of eleven Commonwealth leaders was held in London in June 2008, resulting in the Marlborough House Statement on Reform of International Institutions. A Special Heads of Government Meeting was also held in New York in September 2008 to consider and endorse the Marlborough House Statement.