LONDON – Ending four decades of perfect attendance, Queen Elizabeth II will skip the biennial meeting of Commonwealth leaders later this year as part of a rethink by palace officials of long-distance travel and public events for the 87-year-old monarch.
Prince Charles will take his mother’s place at the November gathering in Sri Lanka, a boost in the profile of the heir to the British throne. The Commonwealth comprises 54 nations, most of them former British colonies, and promoting it as a vehicle for international understanding and democratic values has been a pet project of the queen, the organization’s titular head.
Her decision to forgo this fall’s meeting of presidents and premiers, which was announced Tuesday by Buckingham Palace, is the most significant indication yet of a determination to pare back her busy schedule as she nears her 10th decade of life. She was hospitalized briefly for a stomach ailment in March and later that month missed the annual Commonwealth Day Observance service.
“We’re in the process of looking at long-haul travel” by the queen, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said Tuesday on customary condition of anonymity.
Elizabeth, who has occupied the British throne for a near-record 61 years, was last absent from a Commonwealth “heads of government” convention in 1971, the first one to be held. Before that, she attended every summit of Commonwealth prime ministers, the precursor to the current gathering, since 1953, the year of her coronation.
The queen regards the Commonwealth as a benign successor to the often less-than-benign British Empire. As a 21-year-old princess, she declared in a famous radio broadcast: “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family, to which we all belong.”
She skipped the 1971 meeting in Singapore amid controversy over Britain’s proposal to sell weapons to the apartheid regime in South Africa. This year’s conference in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, has also been dogged by debate over that country’s human-rights record, particularly the government’s treatment of minority Tamils and Tamil Tiger rebels during the island nation’s long and bloody civil war.
Although Sri Lanka is a Commonwealth member, critics say the venue is inappropriate for an organization officially dedicated to promulgating democratic values and equal rights.
The organization is probably best-known for putting on a quadrennial sporting event, the Olympics-like Commonwealth Games, but the leaders’ gathering sometimes makes news. At the summit two years ago, the 16 nations that recognize Elizabeth as queen – Australia, Canada and assorted small island nations, including Britain – agreed to amend centuries-old rules on royal succession to allow firstborn girls to accede to the throne ahead of younger brothers, who have traditionally taken precedence.
Unless the Commonwealth leaders’ conference returns to London, royal watchers said, it is possible that the 2011 meeting in Perth, Australia, was the queen’s last.