Commonwealth Chief Condemns Homophobia But Where's the Action?

04/03/2012 23:17 GMT | Updated 04/05/2012 10:12 BST

Commonwealth secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, speaking to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, has reiterated that homophobia is incompatible with Commonwealth values. He condemned sexual orientation "discrimination or stigmatisation."

Mr Sharma's said: "The Commonwealth is a leader in adding to global value through this collective striving for human rights. The Affirmation introduced a shared commitment on human rights '...for all without discrimination on any grounds...'

"Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is an area of concern on which we have given the perspective of Commonwealth values in various fora, including in this Council.

"Our position continues to be that we oppose discrimination or stigmatisation on any grounds, including those of sexual orientation. It is for member states to address incompatibilities between Commonwealth values and mostly inherited national laws in these areas."

These words send a signal from the Commonwealth leadership that victimisation on the grounds of sexuality is unacceptable. It's good to hear this commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights voiced at the UN.

I lobbied the secretary general in advance of his UN speech, urging him to speak out in support of LGBT human rights. Mr Sharma did not fail us. This is the fourth time he has condemned homophobia in the last year. In May 2011, he became the first Commonwealth Secretary General to publicly criticise sexual orientation discrimination. Bravo!

That's the positive upside. What about the downside?

Compared to the extensive, hard-hitting statements on LGBT human rights made by other international leaders, such as Hillary Clinton and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, Mr Sharma's criticisms of homophobia were very brief and general. He did not rebuke the more than 40 Commonwealth countries that continue to persecute LGBT people. His speech made no mention of transphobia and the need for protection against discrimination based on gender identity.

Most seriously, the Secretary General seemed to be taking a hands-off attitude towards member states that persecute LGBT people; suggesting that it should be left to the persecutors to stop their persecution. This is hardly satisfactory.

Pressure from the Commonwealth leadership needs to be exerted on the homophobic regimes in member nations such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Nigeria and Cameroon. A bit of naming and shaming might help; as would Commonwealth support for the courageous activists and organisations in these countries that defend LGBT human rights. Being a citizen of the global south (India), Mr Sharma is well placed to do this, without facing accusations of western diktat or interference.

His cautious approach is not justified. None of his previous statements against homophobia provoked a backlash. This ought to give the secretary general encouragement to be bolder in his support for beleaguered LGBT communities.

At last year's Commonwealth Summit in Perth, Australia, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was tasked with tackling persistent human rights abuses by member states. There is no doubt that persistent homophobic abuses are happening in more than 40 Commonwealth countries. Yet, so far, CMAG has given no indication that it intends to act in defence of LGBT human rights.

Of the 54 Commonwealth nations, most are former British colonies and 80% have retained the draconian colonial-era homophobic laws that criminalise homosexuality.

The penalties for same-sex relations include 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. In parts of Nigeria and Pakistan, same-sex relationships can be punishable by death.

Commonwealth states account for more than half of the countries in the world that still outlaw homosexuality. This defies the Commonwealth's ostensible commitment to equality and human rights.

Together with groups like Justice for Gay Africans and the Kaleidoscope Trust, the Peter Tatchell Foundation is campaigning against all human rights violations in Commonwealth countries, including homophobia and transphobia. We are working to secure adherence to universal human rights by the 54 member states.

Too many Commonwealth countries not only violate LGBT human rights. They also sanction state executions, censorship, torture, detention without trial and restrictions on free speech and the right to protest - as well as officially-endorsed discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion or belief.

This has to change. Commonwealth countries have a duty to adhere to Commonwealth values and abide by the international human rights laws they have signed and pledged to uphold.

* Peter Tatchell is the Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. More information here: