Commonwealth must put gay rights on its agenda

Whatever excuses the Commonwealth may offer in its defence, one fact is indisputable: in the six decades of its existence it has never debated LGBT human rights.

Commonwealth law ministers are being urged to reconsider and approve recommendations for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in all Commonwealth member states when they meet in Sydney this week.

Last October, senior law officials from Commonwealth countries refused to endorse a paper from the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) which set out the case for the decriminalisation of same-sex relations throughout the Commonwealth - an association of 54 nations, nearly all of them former British colonies.

The CLA argued that the prohibitions on homosexuality had been mostly imposed by Britain during the period of colonial rule and that they are a violation of international law and human rights.

This document and the case for decriminalisation will not now be discussed at the Commonwealth Law Minister’s meeting.

Nor will it be on the agenda of the Commonwealth leaders when they meet in October. It has, in effect, been shelved.

Many of us who are human rights defenders want the law ministers to reconsider the document and to recommend the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in all Commonwealth member states.

Decriminalisation is consistent with the Commonwealth’s professed commitment to human rights, equality and non-discrimination - and with international humanitarian law.

Nearly all Commonwealth countries penalise male homosexuality with lengthy jail terms. In Bangladesh, Guyana, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Uganda, Barbados and Tanzania the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

Indeed, more than 40 Commonwealth nations criminalise same-sex relationships. They comprise over half of the world’s countries that continue to outlaw homosexuality.

This week’s law minister’s meeting is a precursor to the Commonwealth Heads Of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Perth, Australia, from 28 to 30 October this year, which brings together presidents and prime ministers from the member states.

The goal of campaigners is to eventually get lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights on the agenda of CHOGM. Right now, too many member states are resistant and the Commonwealth Secretariat is failing to give a lead.

For many years, I have been campaigning with other activists over the silence and inaction of successive Commonwealth Secretary-Generals concerning the severe homophobia in most Commonwealth member states.

The current Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, has declined to meet LGBT campaigners and has often failed to speak out against the severe levels of homophobia that exist in much of the Commonwealth.

In recent years, three basic LGBT demands to the Commonwealth have emerged: decriminalisation of homosexuality; broad-based anti-discrimination laws, including protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; and comprehensive hate crime laws to protect LGBT people and all other vulnerable social groups, with immediate priority on the effective enforcement of existing laws against violence and incitements to violence.

The Commonwealth is dragging its feet. It has never issued a formal declaration in support of LGBT human rights, let alone embarked on a programme of action to challenge the rampant homophobia and transphobia in its member states. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the Commonwealth has a long history of feeble responses to all human rights abuses, including President Mugabe’s terror campaign in Zimbabwe and the violent suppression of protests in Uganda by President Museveni.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, stands accused of a systematic, persistent and wilful failure to condemn homophobic discrimination and violence. He offered no strong condemnation of Malawi’s arrest and jailing of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga on charges of homosexuality last year. Likewise, his criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which proposed the death penalty for same-sex acts, was muted. Although he did say discrimination is wrong, he also said this about the proposed legislation: ‘The bill is now in the Ugandan parliament - in any Commonwealth country, that is exactly where such a national issue should be debated. Let us see what the people of Uganda decide.’ This quasi neutral stance is hardly what we expect when a Commonwealth member state is proposing to execute its own citizens for consenting, victimless behaviour.

Whatever excuses the Commonwealth may offer in its defence, one fact is indisputable: in the six decades of its existence it has never debated LGBT human rights. Its leaders have never issued any policy document specifically dedicated to combating persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. They have never produced a formal statement calling on member states to decriminalise same-sex acts and provide legal protection to LGBT people against discrimination and hate crimes. This silence shows the true face of the Commonwealth: a bastion of homophobic persecution, collusion and appeasement.

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