The Commonwealth is a bastion of homophobia
The Commonwealth's failure to challenge anti-gay laws and discrimination is the poisonous legacy of British colonialism
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian - Comment is Free - London -17 May 2011
Today is IDAHO – the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. In countries all over the world, there are events calling for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality and equal human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
IDAHO is supported by dozens of governments, including the UK, and by many international government institutions, from the United Nations to the European Union. But the Commonwealth is not lending its support, nor are most Commonwealth countries. They want nothing to do with LGBT rights.
The Commonwealth is a bastion of global homophobia, often bucking the worldwide trend towards sexual orientation equality, with increased state-sanctioned threats and repression in Malawi, Uganda, The Gambia, Malaysia, Cameroon and Nigeria.
The 54 Commonwealth member states comprise one quarter of the UN membership and one third of all humanity. Forty-six of these Commonwealth countries still criminalise same-sex relations in all circumstances, with penalties including 25 years jail in Trinidad and Tobago and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Several countries stipulate life imprisonment: Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Uganda, Tanzania and Bangladesh.
These 46 homophobic Commonwealth countries account for more than half of the 76 countries in the world that still have a total prohibition on homosexuality.
Nearly all the Commonwealth’s anti-gay laws are the poisonous legacy of British colonialism. They were originally imposed by the British government in the nineteenth century, during the period of colonial rule – and never repealed when the former colonies won their freedom. The post-independence leaders retained the homophobic mindset of their colonial masters. Nowadays, many of their countrymen and women absurdly proclaim that the legal proscription of homosexuality is an authentic expression of indigenous national culture and tradition.
The Commonwealth is failing to challenge homophobia. This is somewhat surprising because the Commonwealth defines itself as a free and equal association of nations committed to the core principles of democracy, human rights, equality, non-discrimination, opportunity for all, liberty of the individual and human dignity.
Indeed, one of its catch phrases is Human Rights: More than Words. Shame about the reality.
The Commonwealth 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 Mugabe’s murder and mayhem in Zimbabwe and the current violent suppression of protests in Uganda.
In the case of LGBT people, the Commonwealth’s core principles are routinely violated by nearly all Commonwealth countries – and without rebuke by the leaders of the Commonwealth. As a result, millions of LGBT Commonwealth citizens are at risk of discrimination, harassment, arrest, torture, rape, imprisonment and mob attacks.
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.
The Commonwealth Secretary-General has repeatedly ignored letters and appeals from LGBT campaigners. When I wrote Mr Sharma, asking what the Commonwealth was doing to tackle homophobia, he declined to reply. Weeks later, a lower ranking official sent a letter about the Commonwealth’s work combating HIV, which did not even mention gay rights. A similar thing happened to Godwyns Onwuchekwa of Justice for Gay Africans. No reply. Our requests for Mr Sharma to meet us and other Commonwealth LGBT campaigners have been spurned.
I get the feeling that the Secretary-General does not care much about the human rights of LGBT Commonwealth citizens. He seems to regard the issue as an embarrassment and distraction.
Whatever excuses the Commonwealth may offer in its defence, one fact is indisputable: in the 62 years 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.
If the Secretary-General can’t robustly defend universal human rights and equality for LGBT people, he is unfit for high office and should resign.Click here to return to the International Index Click here to return to the General Index