What is the Commonwealth doing to stop member states persecuting LGBTQ people?

When the Commonwealth Charter was signed nine years ago, it was hailed by some as a turning point for the lives of LGBTQ+ people.

It was the first time that the association of former British colonies had a formal charter setting out its shared values – a progressive step forward, or so it seemed.

‘We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds,’ the document stated.

But campaigners said the fact that the charter didn’t even mention sexuality spoke volumes about the Commonwealth’s efforts to tackle its nations’ homophobia.

Nearly a decade on and 35 out of 54 member states criminalise same-sex relations, seven of which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In Malaysia, LGBTQ+ people face 20 years and flogging, while in northern parts of Nigeria still under Sharia law, they risk the death penalty.

Most of this oppressive legislation is a hangover from the British Empire, which imposed its own anti-sodomy laws over its colonies.

What are campaigners demanding of Commonwealth states?

  • Decriminalise same-sex relations
  • Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Enforce existing laws against threats of violence to protect LGBTQ+ people from hate crimes
  • Consult and dialogue with national LGBTQ+ organisations

But still members have had decades to change the law as independent states, says human rights and LGBTQ+ campaigner Peter Tatchell.

‘The Commonwealth says that its aim is to work via consensus – this means colluding with homophobic regimes that comprise at least 70% of member states,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.

‘In all but a handful of Commonwealth countries, LGBTQ+ people have no protection against discrimination and hate crime.

‘This is particularly outrageous given that prejudice and discrimination is so widespread among Commonwealth populations.’

Mr Tatchell says that the Commonwealth has the power to sanction or suspend members that violate its charter but is yet to do so.

And in the 30 years he’s spent lobbying its heads of government, they have consistently refused to discuss LGBTQ+ rights at their biennial meeting.

In 2018, then-prime minister Theresa May said she ‘deeply regrets’ Britain’s legacy of anti-gay laws imposed on the Commonwealth and urged members to overhaul such ‘outdated’ legislation.

Mr Tatchell saw this as the UK taking ‘ownership and responsibility for homophobic legislation’, while signaling that these ‘are not indigenous laws at all’.

Before British colonisation, there were no anti LGBTQ+ laws in these countries, some of which had ‘varying degrees of tolerance and acceptance of same-sex relations’, he adds.

Some member states have since taken a path of decriminalisation in recent years, including Botswana, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Mozambique, Seychelles, Lesotho and Belize

Mr Tatchell says the Commonwealth could ‘giving a lead by holding up these countries as positive examples’.

But its Secretary General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, has remained tight lipped about them, he adds.

‘I can’t recall an instance where Baroness Scotland has made an effort to get LGBTQ+ rights on the agenda.

‘We certainly hoped that the enactment of the Commonwealth Charter would provide a way to hold homophobic countries to account. But that hasn’t happened.

‘The Commonwealth Secretariat in London has said and done nothing of significance to protect Commonwealth LGBTQ+ citizens.

The Commonwealth says it operates by consensus and the consensus is that LGBTQ+ people are not entitled to equal human rights.’

Pliny Soocoormanee, executive officer for the Peter Tatchell foundation, knows first hand how rampant homophobia still is across the Commonwealth.

Recalling growing up in Mauritius, he said: ‘The only message that I got growing up was that being gay is wrong, it’s against nature, I will get aids and I will die alone.’

‘Homophobia was rampant against LGBT+ people and it was a general feeling of being suppressed. 

‘Even if someone was attacked or beaten up because of their sexuality, they would have thought twice before reporting it to the police.  We are talking about 20 years ago.

‘I come from a reasonably liberal milieu, but when I came out some 12 years ago, my parents were not happy.

‘If someone then told me that down the line that nine years later I would take my dad to a gay film festival and that my mum would join me at Pride, I would have thought it would be impossible.  This just proves that people do and can change.

While some progress has been made in Maritius, such as banning workplace discrimination based on sexuality, the Section 250 colonial-era law still criminalises consensual same-sex activity.

There have been cases of parents putting their children in mental health institutions upon learning they are LGBTQ+ and some young people are harrassed and beaten up by family members over their sexuality.

‘While Britain had a considerable role in exporting homophobia, it is essential to note that since 1968, Mauritius has been independent.  Successive governments have failed to amend that piece of legislation,’ said Pliny.

Pliny has since seen an ‘increasing number of people happy to be out’ on the island and a ‘growing level of tolerance’, but it’s still not entirely accepted, and 2018’s Pride rally was cancelled due to violent threats.

‘When I talk to younger people, they tell me they would like to see changes now, not in 20 years!

He adds: ‘The fact remains that Commonwealth leaders refuse to recognise that LGBT+ rights are human rights. 

‘They vetoed any discussion of the issue at their heads of government meetings over the years.  In my opinion, countries that criminalise LGBT+ people should be suspended from the Commonwealth.’

Metro.co.uk has contacted the Commonwealth Secretariat for comment.

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