Commonwealth of Homophobia?
27th July 2014
When the Queen opened the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow on 23 July it was a joyous moment for athletes, spectators and a global audience of millions. But for many victims of human rights abuses in Commonwealth member states the celebrations will have seemed insensitive and misjudged. How can the Commonwealth be celebrated when human rights abuses are so widespread within it, often including detention without trial, torture, the death penalty, media censorship, sexist and ethnic discrimination and restrictions on the rights to protest, strike and freedom of expression?
Some of the most marginalised victims of persecution in the Commonwealth are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Of the 53 member nations of the Commonwealth, 42 criminalise consensual same-sex relationships between adults. They make up over half the countries in the world that have a total prohibition on homosexuality. Seven of these Commonwealth states stipulate life imprisonment. Two – Pakistan and Nigeria – have Sharia law in certain regions, where the maximum penalty is execution. Brunei is proposing to introduce death by stoning for same-sex acts.
Homophobic criminalisation, prejudice, discrimination and violence is routine – and occurs with impunity – in 80% of Commonwealth countries. Governments of these nations reject LGBTI human rights and dialogue with their LGBTI communities. The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is no better. It refuses to even discuss the widespread violation of LGBTI human rights, vetoing any discussion for more than 20 years. It was only as recently as 2011 that a Commonwealth Secretary-General, for the first time ever, declared against homophobia - and this was only in response to my public rebuke of decades of Commonwealth silence and inaction. Nevertheless, many of us saw this pioneering declaration as a positive turning point. Since then, however, we’ve also experienced a fair degree of subsequent disappointment. We’ve witnessed the recriminalisation of homosexuality in India, homophobic witch-hunts in Cameroon, gay-bashing attacks in Jamaica and the draconian new anti-gay laws in Brunei, Uganda and Nigeria. In response to these outrages, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, has been fairly muted or totally silent.
The global LGBTI lobby group, the Kaleidoscope Trust, has explained in its report why and how he should be challenging these human rights abuses. The report is entitled: Speaking Out: The rights of LGBTI citizens from across the Commonwealth. Compiled with input from LGBTI people in many Commonwealth countries, it presents shocking, graphic evidence of the immense oppression they suffer. Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of this report is the first-hand testimony from the victims of homophobia and transphobia:
‘I have lost two teeth, had my family property invaded and car d amaged by two maskedmen…I have had stones thrown at me, experienced simulated gun shots, insults and physical harm on public transportation.’ Caleb Orozco, Belize.
‘A mob had gathered there saying they wanted to kill gays. I was getting into a public minibus and the conductor started to beat me. Then everyone started beating me.’ Anonymous, Tanzania.
‘I was attacked, beaten and paraded naked on the street of Dakwo village, Abuja in July 2013 on the allegation that I am gay. People brought several video camera and mobile phone to record my nakedness. This inhuman degrading treatment has ruined my life and I have been banished from Dakwo village.’ KC, Nigeria.
With a prestigious forward by the former Commonwealth Secretary General, Sir Shridath Ramphal, and a damning introduction from the ex-head of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit, Dr. Purna Sen, the Kaleidoscope report is an authoritative, illuminating call to action. Dr. Sen notes that criminalisation and hate crime are not the only persecutions suffered by Commonwealth LGBTI citizens. There is also widespread discrimination: the denial of ‘equal access to rights, education, employment, housing and healthcare.’ These abuses happen in defiance of the human rights obligations enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. Based on the evidence amassed, the report urges all Commonwealth governments to repeal legislation criminalising same-sex behaviour and, in the meantime, to agree a moratorium on the enforcement of any such existing laws. It also calls on member states to engage in dialogue with their LGBTI communities and to approve the formation of a Commonwealth-wide LGBTI association with formal consultative status.
The biggest, most challenging demand is the discussion of LGBTI equal rights at the next CHOGM. We live in hope. If there is any justice, this commendable, excoriating report will prompt the Commonwealth to ensure that it happens.
Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation The Peter Tatchell Foundation (PTF), which seeks to promote and protect the human rights of individuals, communities and nations, in the UK and internationally, in accordance with established national and international human rights law. The aims and objectives of the PTF are to raise awareness, understanding, protection and implementation of human rights, in the UK and worldwide. This involves research, education, advice, casework, publicity, lobbying and campaigning for the enforcement and furtherance of humanitarian statutes and values.