21st century club

The Commonwealth is emerging as a voluntarist group with soft power and trade potential

President Yahya Jammeh's decision to yank the Gambia out of the Commonwealth was reportedly a bigger surprise to those in his immediate entourage than it was to Britain. Despite his decision, the 54-member group is growing. Its members now include countries that were not former British colonies - Mozambique and Rwanda - and is increasingly attracting members of the rival club. Jammeh's move followed more British focus on human rights and pressure to promote equality based on sexuality.

A greater test of how the organisation promotes its core values of democracy and human rights will come at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka. The host president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a man who should now be facing war crimes charges for the part he played in the brutal end to the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

After the hurdles of decolonisation, apartheid and human rights, the Commonwealth emerges as a voluntarist group of 54 countries, half of them small or island nations, which is not entirely sure how to define itself. For much of the last decade, it was a UK legacy stuck in the attic gathering dust. But the soft power of such a group is tangible enough. The advantages of mutual prosperity have been lost sight of, although trade within the Commonwealth has increased. A study by the Royal Commonwealth Society found that this was because member states believed each other to be safer bets than non-members.

From a leader in 'The Guardian', London

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