High Commissioner (Commonwealth)

High Commissioner (Commonwealth)

"This article deals with the office and title of High Commissioner in the British Empire and Commonwealth. For the title of High Commissioner in other parts of the world, see High Commissioner."

In the Commonwealth of Nations, a High Commissioner is the senior diplomat (generally ranking as Ambassador) in charge of the diplomatic mission of one Commonwealth government to another.


In the British Empire (most of which would become the Commonwealth), High Commissioners were envoys of the Imperial government appointed to manage protectorates or groups of territories not fully under the sovereignty of the British Crown, while crown colonies (which were British sovereign territory) would normally be administered by a Governor and the most significant possessions, large confederations and the self-governing Dominions were headed by a Governor-General.

For example, when Cyprus came under British administration in 1878 it remained nominally under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. The representative of the British government and head of the administration was titled High Commissioner until Cyprus became a crown colony in 1925, when the incumbent High Commissioner became the first Governor. A High Commissioner could also be charged with the last phase of decolonisation, as in the crown colony of the Seychelles, where the last governor served as High Commissioner from 1975, when self-rule under the Crown was granted, until 1976, when the archipelago became an independent republic within the Commonwealth.

British protectorates

As diplomatic Residents (as diplomatic ranks were codified, this became a lower class than Ambassadors and High Commissioners) were also appointed to native rulers, that position could on occasion similarly be filled be a colonial governor. Thus High Commissioners could be charged with managing diplomatic relations with native rulers and their states (analogous to the Resident Minister), and might have under them several Resident Commissioners or similar agents attached to each state.

In certain regions of particular importance, a Commissioner-General would be appointed, to have control over several High Commissioners and Governors, e.g. the Commissioner-General for South-East Asia had responsibility for Malaya, Singapore and British Borneo.

Governors doubling as High Commissioners

The role of High Commissioner for Southern Africa was coupled with that of British governor of the Cape Colony in the nineteenth century giving the colonial administrator in question responsibility both for administering British possessions and relating to neighbouring Boer settlements.

Historically, in Southern Africa, the protectorates of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Basutoland (now Lesotho) and Swaziland were administered as "High Commission Territories" by the Governor-General of South Africa was also the British High Commissioner for Bechuanaland, Basutoland, and Swaziland until the 1930s, with various local representatives, then by the British High Commissioner (from 1961 Ambassador) to South Africa, who was represented locally in each by a Resident Commissioner.

The British governor of the crown colony of the Straits Settlements, based in Singapore, doubled as High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, and had authority over the Resident-General in Kuala Lumpur, who in turn was responsible for the various Residents appointed to the native rulers of the Malay states under British protection.

The British Western Pacific Territories were permanently governed as a group of minor insular colonial territories, under one single, not even full time, Western Pacific High Commissioner (1905-1953), an office attached first to the governorship of Fiji, and subsequently to that of the Solomon Islands, represented in each of the other islands units: by a Resident Commissioner, Consul (representative) or other official (on tiny Pitcairn a mere Chief Magistrate).

Currently, there is still one High Commissioner who also serves in an additional capacity as a Governor: the British High Commissioner to New Zealand ex officio serves as British colonial Governor of the Pitcairn Islands.


The first Dominion High Commissioner was appointed by Canada as its envoy in London in 1880, but the Imperial government did not appoint High Commissioners to the Dominions, where the crown was already represented by the relevant Governor-General. This began to prove problematic after the First World War when the Dominions demanded a far greater degree of control over their foreign affairs. In Canada matters would come to a head during the King-Byng Affair of 1926.

The Balfour Declaration made at the Imperial Conference of 1926 established that Governors-General in the independent dominions were not the representatives of the United Kingdom government but the personal representatives of the Sovereign, and with the constitutional development of the Dominions and their assumption of control over their own external and foreign relations it became standard for the United Kingdom and the Dominions to exchange high commissioners to each other's governments.

From as early as the 1930s, some Commonwealth members have indicated a preference for the title to be replaced with that of Ambassador, but over the years whenever the issue has been raised, a majority of members has been in favour of keeping the separate title and status of High Commissioner.

Current practice

As sixteen Commonwealth members, known as the Commonwealth realms, share the same monarch as Sovereign Head of state (currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II), diplomatic relations between these states are traditionally at a governmental level, and so these governments do not appoint Ambassadors to each other, since Ambassadors are the representatives of one Head of state to another.

A High Commissioner from one Commonwealth realm to another carries a simple and often informal letter of introduction from his head of government (e.g. Prime Minister) to the head of government (prime minister) of the receiving state, while Ambassadors carry formal letters of credence from their head of state addressed to the host nation's head of state. The difference in accreditation is also reflected in the formal titles of envoys to foreign and Commonwealth states: e.g., British High Commissioners are formally titled "The High Commissioner for Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom", whereas British Ambassadors to foreign countries are known as "Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador"

For historical reasons, High Commissioners are also appointed even in the case of Commonwealth republics and indigenous monarchies (i.e. members who do not share the same person as Monarchic Head of State, as the Commonwealth realms do; most are republics). In this case, letters of commission are usually issued by one head of state and presented to the other. However, some Commonwealth governments may choose to use the more informal method of issuing prime-ministerial letters of introduction, while other governments have opted instead for letters of credence.

Instead of embassies, Commonwealth countries have High Commissions in each other's capitals, although it is possible for a country to appoint a High Commissioner without having a permanent mission in the other country: e.g. the British High Commissioner in Suva, Fiji, is also accredited as High Commissioner to Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga. Zimbabwe, as a Commonwealth country, has traditionally had High Commissioners in other Commonwealth countries; when it withdrew from the Commonwealth, it changed the style of its former High Commission in London to "The Zimbabwe Embassy" (the old letters can still be seen on the building off Agar Street, Strand, London).

Outside the capital, practice is less standard. Subordinate "Commissioners" or "Deputy High Commissioners" may be appointed instead of consuls, and the commissioner's mission may be known as a "consulate", "commission" or "deputy high commission". In the former British lease territory Hong Kong, most Commonwealth countries were represented by Commissioners before the colony was handed over to the People's Republic of China in 1997; now they have been replaced by consuls or consuls-general as elsewhere outside the Commonwealth.

Despite the differences in terminology, since 1948 Commonwealth High Commissioners have enjoyed the same diplomatic rank and precedence as ambassadors of foreign Heads of State, and in some countries are accorded privileges not enjoyed by foreign Ambassadors. For example, the Sovereign receives High Commissioners before Ambassadors, and sends a coach and four horses to fetch new High Commissioners to the palace, whereas new Ambassadors only get two horses. High Commissioners also play a part in important ceremonies of state, such as the annual Remembrance Sunday service at the cenotaph in Whitehall (commemorating Commonwealth countries' war casualties) and royal funerals.

ee also

*Lord High Commissioner
*List of Canadian High Commissioners to the United Kingdom
*High Representative


* [http://www.psa.ac.uk/publications/psd/1998/lloyd1.htm History of the title High Commissioner]
* [http://www.worldstatesmen.org/ WorldStatesmen] click on the present countries mentioned
* [http://www.direct.gov.uk/Gtgl1/GuideToGovernment/InternationalBodies/InternationalBodiesArticles/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=4003092&chk=JXlogH The Commonwealth] - UK government site

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