Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in London this week as the honoured guest of the Commonwealth Business Council. Among those welcoming him to the grand surroundings of Lancaster House just down the road from the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace was the UK's Minister for Africa. Yet just 10 weeks ago President Museveni made it punishable by life imprisonment to be a lesbian or gay man in his country. Anybody daring even to speak up for the rights of LGBT citizens can now go to jail for seven years.
On the other side of the world, in the small absolute monarchy of Brunei, legislation has just been enacted that includes stoning to death as a punishment for sodomy, adultery and blasphemy. The United Nations was clear in its response, pointing out that, "application of the death penalty for such a broad range of offences contravenes international law...stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited." Yet Britain's human rights minister made no public comment at all when she met the Sultan in Brunei only last month.
Like Uganda, Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth. That organisation claims to base its work on the values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Britain opposes the death penalty and supports the rights of LGBT citizens internationally. And yet at the very time that those principles are being flagrantly violated the red carpets are rolled out and the smiles and handshakes are proffered without a public word of criticism being uttered.
If it is business as usual under these circumstances it begs the question just how far our so-called 'friends' have to go before there is any kind of meaningful price to be paid.
This is not to advocate a policy of megaphone diplomacy. There's no doubt noisy denunciations of human rights abuses on a regular basis achieve little. They may even be counter-productive. Leaders of proudly independent countries don't like to be lectured, least of all by the former colonial power that left some deeply illiberal legislation behind them, especially on homosexuality. But it is not just about leaders. It's about the people affected by their decisions. Lesbians, gay men and trans people are citizens of Brunei and Uganda too. Their own governments should defend them but when that doesn't happen it's important for them to know they have friends in the international community. They can only know when we say so loud and clear.
I've no doubt ministers do make their concerns known behind closed doors. We're told the Africa minister, Mark Simmonds, raised the new Ugandan laws directly with president Museveni and was told they would make no difference in practice. Reports received by the Kaleidoscope Trust, an LGBT rights charity here in the UK, tell a very different story and it's to the credit of the British government that they take those reports seriously. It's harder to get reliable information from a country like Brunei, where NGOs barely function, but the threat to individuals who fall foul of the new laws is obvious. According to the Foreign Office, Baroness Warsi expressed the government's concern when she was there in April and the High Commissioner does the same on a regular basis.
Trying to influence governments quietly through private conversations is all well and good. It's what diplomats and ministers do all the time and so they should. But when gross violations of human rights and of international law are personally enacted by leaders such as Museveni and the Sultan of Brunei a much stronger public response is called for. Without it, other leaders tempted to buy cheap popularity or placate their own hard-liners by attacking some of the most vulnerable in their own countries will see no reason to desist. And those who are vulnerable to the consequences of the politics of hate are again left without friends. Britain should be using its influence within the Commonwealth to try to shake it out of its reluctance to criticise openly any of its members on the issue.
Uganda and Brunei want to be recognised as economic success stories, even as regional powers. They want to be respected members of the Commonwealth and other international bodies. Their leaders like to travel the world being fêted by politicians and businesspeople alike. And yet they suppress opposition at home and seek to strangle civil society organisations that have the audacity to argue that human rights are indivisible and the death penalty is wrong.
The Commonwealth should be ashamed of its failure to uphold its own values. And Britain should not leave itself open to suspicions that trading and financial interests come ahead of human rights every time. This week's meeting with the Commonwealth Business Council was the ideal opportunity to send a clear public signal that it cannot always be business as usual. Sadly it was an opportunity wasted.
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