Commonwealth progress but more reform is needed

While some progress is being made on LGBT rights in the Commonwealth, it is painfully slow. More reform is needed urgently. Nearly 80 per cent of the 54 Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexuality, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment for consenting same-sex behaviour between adults in private.

Peter Tatchell

By Peter Tatchell, of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and OutRage!

While some progress is being made on LGBT rights in the Commonwealth, it is painfully slow. More reform is needed urgently.

Nearly 80 per cent of the 54 Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexuality, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment for consenting same-sex behaviour between adults in private. In parts of Nigeria and Pakistan, Sharia law dictates the death penalty.

This state-sanctioned homophobic repression has recently intensified in Zambia, Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria and The Gambia. It is a worrying trend of polarisation, division and persecution.

Uganda is still pushing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which stipulates the death penalty for repeat homosexual offenders.

In Nigeria, the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill proposes a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for support of gay organisations and events, advocacy of gay human rights, participation in gay wedding ceremonies and for even the mildest public expressions of same-sex affection.

Together with five of my colleagues from the Peter Tatchell Foundation, I recently met key officials at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London: Karen McKenzie, Acting Head of Human Rights, and David Banks, Public Affairs Adviser to the Secretary-General.

Our agenda was to discuss how the Commonwealth can best advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and inter-sex (LGBTI) human rights – and work with other organisations to achieve this.

To help break down homophobic prejudice and ignorance, I proposed that the Commonwealth sponsors a series of seminars on LGBTI issues for High Commissioners and journalists from Commonwealth countries, with the participation of LGBTI campaigners from member states where homophobic and transphobic repression is rife, so they can tell their personal stories.

If government representatives and local media can be made better aware of LGBTI issues it can help build understanding and lessen repression. In countries like Uganda and Nigeria, more objective and sympathetic media reporting is crucial for the diminution of anti-LGBT prejudice, discrimination and violence.

We were advised that the Commonwealth Secretariat is working with national human rights institutions in member states and has a youth training programme on non-discrimination that includes the rights of women and LGBTI people. It is also working with Commonwealth parliamentarians, law officials and civil society groups.

The aim of these Commonwealth initiatives is to build capacity and advocacy in Commonwealth countries, so people there can raise these issues from within.

There are two major upcoming opportunities to highlight LGBTI issues within the Commonwealth: the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in November and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. We hope the Scottish government will ensure that there is a major international human rights event in parallel with the 2014 games.

Successful pressure for change in the Commonwealth is most likely to come from within the member states and draw on the equality and non-discrimination clauses of their own constitutions-  and the human rights conventions they have signed and pledged to uphold, such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

That’s why it is so import to empower and support indigenous LGBTI and human rights defenders. They can best articulate their needs. Their voices need to be heard.

We commend the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, for repeatedly pointing out that homophobic persecution is inconsistent with Commonwealth values and international human rights law – mostly recently when he spoke at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in February:

“With regard to sexual orientation and gender identity our position remains that, based on shared Commonwealth principles, we oppose discrimination or stigmatisation on any grounds. While it is not realistic to expect the pace of progress towards implementation to be uniform across our 54 member states, we continue to encourage constructive national debate in legislatures, and the examination of legal remedies, and to work with national human rights institutions.

“Work alongside member states on the Universal Periodic Review offers scope for criminal codes to be brought into conformity with Commonwealth commitments and international human rights law supporting the principles of equality and non-discrimination.”

We look forward to continued dialogue and cooperation with the Commonwealth Secretariat on LGBTI human rights, and hope it will engage in better dialogue with LGBTI defenders in countries where there is severe persecution; in order to hear first-hand about their suffering and the remedies they seek – including decriminalisation and laws against discrimination.

We pay tribute to the many other individuals and organisations that are helping progress the case for equality and diversity within the Commonwealth, including the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Eminent Persons Group, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and many others. It is our collective, cumulative effort that is paving the way for positive change.

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