THE BLOG

Looking for a Leader in the Caribbean

21/10/2014 17:06 BST | Updated 21/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Every year, Trinidad and Tobago becomes a paradise holiday retreat for thousands of people around the world. But in the twin island state, many women and men are living in hell as they continue to be discriminated against for who they are, and who they love.

The island's laws prohibit entry of "homosexuals" into the country and consensual same-sex relationships can be punished with prison sentences of up to 25 years.

A few months ago, the country's commission in charge of the reform of the constitution pointed out "a high level of violence and abuse directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or intersex (LGBTI) people."

But over the last couple of weeks something has changed, there is excitement in the air. People are increasingly coming together to question these homophobic laws and are calling for change.

The ground-swell of support has been palpable, and has come as a reaction to a mis-judged statement from the country's leader, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Last month, during an interview in New York, the Prime Minister was questioned about the country's laws. She told the crowd that the "decriminalization of homosexuality" isn't something her government is seeking to do at the moment because "it's too divided, there's no consensus on that issue." She then rapidly ended the discussion saying the question should be put before a national referendum.

She ducked and dived and suggested that there would be opposition to any change in the law.

Since then, a fierce debate has taken place in the country. Many new voices have come forward to challenge the Prime Minister's dismissal of her government's obligations to protect the rights of LGBTI people.

The public debate has been bolstered by recent developments.

Recently UNAIDS, the United Nations agency in charge of the fight against HIV/AIDS, presented the results of a survey undertaken in Trinidad and Tobago.

An encouraging 78% of people interviewed said that "homosexuals should not be treated differently", and 56% said that they themselves were tolerant towards LGBTI people.

Then, last week the country's Equal Opportunity Commission announced that it will recommend including sexual orientation, age and HIV status in national legislation designed to protect citizens against discrimination.

Surely if the Prime Minister needs a green light to act on this issue, she has just received a strong message: the country is ready to move forward.

In fact, Kamla Persad-Bissessar herself has already shown she is open to change. In 2012 she noted that "the stigmatisation of homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago is a matter which must be addressed on the grounds of human rights and dignity to which every individual is entitled under international law." Amnesty International could not agree more.

However, while the Prime Minister can take strength from the outpouring of support and call for change, her suggestion of a referendum is not the surest way forward. If the Prime Minister is serious about effecting progressive change she does not need to put the question to a referendum and risk a result that reinforces discrimination. She should instead promote legislation that would ensure Trinidad and Tobago's laws comply with its international obligations and implement appropriate awareness raising measures to combat society's prejudices and discriminatory practices.

Above all, protection from discrimination is an internationally-binding obligation that has been voluntarily accepted by the Trinidadian state. Over the years, UN experts have clarified that treaty provisions prohibiting discrimination implicitly proscribe discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It's a responsibility which needs to be acted upon by the government, not something that's optional.

Trinidad and Tobago has repeatedly proven to be a tolerant society. Protection from discrimination is a key component amongst its diverse communities, the foundation on which the country has been built on.

It's exactly because of this strong track-record of tolerance that the Prime Minister's inaction and excuses need to be challenged. When so many people and institutions are voicing concerns that LGBTI Trinidadians are continuously facing discrimination, the Prime Minister can no longer ignore the issue.

To improve the human rights record in Trinidad and Tobago the country needs leadership. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar can be that leader and could truly make a mark on the country's history and change the human rights environment for the better.

But it is not just Trinidad and Tobago's future that is at stake. Positive change on the island could reverberate across the region. At a time when too many women and men throughout the Caribbean continue to face violence and discrimination for who they are and who they love, Trinidad and Tobago can show a path of respect and tolerance by ending discrimination for thousands.