The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, was a huge disappointment in terms of human rights. The failings were particularly acute concerning the systemic abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights in 80% of the Commonwealth's 54 member states.
On the positive side, Kamalesh Sharma became the first Commonwealth Secretary General to speak out against homophobic persecution at a CHOGM event, the NGO Commonwealth People's Forum.
However, despite appeals for LGBT equality from some Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers, there was no agreement on the decriminalisation of homosexuality by the assembled government leaders.
Huge credit is due to the many Commonwealth, LGBT and HIV/AIDS organisations that lobbied CHOGM and made their case for non-discrimination at the Commonwealth People's Forum. Our collective efforts raised the profile of LGBT rights. Although not on the official agenda of the heads of government, demands for the decriminalisation of homosexuality were a major backdrop to CHOGM. The petition and email blitz put the Secretary General and Commonwealth governments under unprecedented pressure to respect the human rights of LGBT people. They got the message.
The Secretary General heard us loud and clear. He stood with LGBT people, taking a lead by affirming that homophobic criminalisation and discrimination are incompatible with Commonwealth values. No Secretary General had ever said this at CHOGM. Our hope is that he will continue to give a lead by opposing sexual orientation discrimination and by urging homophobic countries to abide by the Commonwealth's human rights values.
More than 40 of the 54 Commonwealth member states still criminalise same-sex relations, with penalties including 25 years jail in Trinidad and Tobago and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Six Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment: Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana.
At CHOGM, there was no condemnation of Uganda's revived anti-gay bill which carries the death penalty for repeat homosexual offenders and no condemnation of Nigeria's bill that outlaws same-sex marriage with three years jail for participants and five years jail for those who witness, aid or abet a same-sex marriage.
The CHOGM 2011 Final Communiqué included no commitment to oppose homophobic persecution and to protect the human rights of LGBT people, despite widespread sexual orientation and gender identity abuses by most Commonwealth nations.
Read the Final Communiqué here.
These failings contradict the Commonwealth's professed fundamental values of human rights, equality and non-discrimination. They reflect a wider failure to tackle human rights abuses in many Commonwealth member states, including gender inequality, ethnic discrimination, detention without trial, torture, media censorship and state-sponsored executions.
There were, however, some limited CHOGM agreements which could potentially lead to future progress on LGBT rights; albeit very slowly and piecemeal.
Commonwealth leaders agreed that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) will be empowered to deal with serious or persistent human rights violations by member states. This could, in theory, include action against countries that perpetrate homophobic persecution.
CMAG will, in effect, be the custodian of the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles which, the Secretary General said in his speech at the Commonwealth People's Forum, "includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding. This means we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity. Discrimination and criminalisation on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with our values."
Commonwealth heads of government are committed to set up a task force to advise on the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group. These recommendations include that member governments should take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede effective responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, such as the criminalisation of same-sex relations.
This task force offers some hope that that the EPG's decriminalisation recommendation might be implemented eventually, at least in some Commonwealth countries. To make this happen, we need to sustain our lobbying and campaigning efforts. For LGBT people, the Commonwealth remains a work in progress.
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