This year’s CHOGM theme is: ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming.’ The eyes of the world – and world history – will judge if they are up to this noble task.
One segment of Commonwealth life that needs immediate transformation is the human right to equality and protection under the law for all LGBT+ people in Commonwealth nations. The Commonwealth has failed in this regard.
At this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda, #CHOGM2022, during the week of 20 June, it is time for the Commonwealth to live up to its declared statement on twitter: ‘The #Commonwealth supports development, democracy & peace. We are a voice for small states and a champion for young people.’ CHOGM needs to recognise that young people want change, democracy demands change, and that peace is only possible when injustice and hatred are eradicated through legislative and educational reform.
1. The Problem
The Human Dignity Trust summarises the problem for millions of Commonwealth citizens:
Discriminatory sexual offence laws, most of which originate in 19th century colonial penal codes, continue to blight the lives of millions of Commonwealth citizens. They criminalise human rights protected conduct and yet fail to adequately criminalise all forms of sexual violence or to protect survivors of such violence. These laws foster and enable violence and discrimination, and they are at odds with international and regional human rights norms and domestic constitutional law. They particularly affect women and girls and LGBT people and undermine the health and prosperity of entire societies.
The Kaleidoscope International Trust notes:
… LGBT+ people are criminalised and persecuted because of who they are and who they love… homophobic laws and attitudes imported and implemented during Great Britain’s colonial regime have yet to be repealed and ruled unconstitutional. This means the prejudices of the past have very real consequences in our present.
WikiMilli notes that ‘Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth; and legal in only 19’. Punishments range from flogging and imprisonment with hard labour, to life imprisonment or death. Related social discrimination leads to violence, hate crimes, increased rates of HIV/AIDS and other health problems, and murder. (Yes folks, this is the Commonwealth in the 21st century).
“Homosexuality is a criminal offence in the following Commonwealth member states (those with an asterisk* do not enforce the law): Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Eswatini, Tanzania, The Gambia, Uganda, Zambia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Brunei, Mauritius,* Sri Lanka,* Samoa,* Malawi,* Namibia,* Sierra Leone,* Antigua and Barbuda,* Barbados,* Dominica,* Jamaica,* Kiribati,* Tonga,* and Tuvalu.*” (List Source: Wikipedia, last edited on 16 May 2022.)
“There is a direct link between criminalizing laws and increased rates of HIV, and the Commonwealth undeniably demonstrates this link. The Commonwealth accounts for approximately 30% of the world’s population but over 60% of HIV cases worldwide.”
(Human Dignity Trust, in GayStarNews, 2015).
Amnesty International calls for LGBT rights around the world, and Commonwealth nations should adopt these principles unconditionally:
“Everyone should be able to feel proud of who they are and who they love. We all have the right to express ourselves freely. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which set out for the first time the rights we’re all entitled to) protects everyone’s right to express themselves freely.
“Bringing an end to homophobia and transphobia will save lives. Anti-LGBTI harassment puts LGBTI identifying people at a heightened risk of physical and psychological harm. Everyone has the right to life, freedom and safety.”
The Peter Tatchell Foundation is urging all Commonwealth countries to:
1. Decriminalise homosexuality
2. Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
3. Enforce laws against threats and violence, to protect LGBT people from hate crimes
4. Consult and dialogue with LGBT organisations
And yet, according to its own Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, it appears that LGBT+ rights for millions of Commonwealth citizens are not even on the Commonwealth agenda.
2. The Moral Imperative for Change
“I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. As the UK’s Prime Minister, I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.” ~ Theresa May, The Guardian, 2018.
There are many voices across the Commonwealth that reflect its highest aims and aspirations: upholding the nobility of common humanity, with dignity and equality for all; and abolishing prejudice.
“We believe in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live. We therefore strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law that are our common heritage.” ~ The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, Singapore 1971.
“Our hopes for a more just, safe, and peaceful world can only be achieved when there is universal respect for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family.” – UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
“Affirming that the special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; and bound together by shared history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable…” (Charter of the Commonwealth, 2013, p. i.)
“If the church, after the victory over apartheid, is looking for a worthy moral crusade, then this is it: the fight against homophobia and heterosexism.” ~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“The Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity.” ~ Nelson Mandela.
“We hope that the Commonwealth Sports movement is playing a meaningful role in the wider global conversation around tolerance, empowerment, and legal recognition for all.” ~ Tom Daley
“We recall the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, which includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding… Discrimination and criminalisation on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with our values and I have had occasion to refer to this in the context of our law-related conferences.” ~ Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General.
3. Voices for Change
CHOGM aims to reinforce multilateral cooperation, explore new opportunities, and tackle common challenges for the well-being of future generations.
As part of this year’s CHOGM meeting in Rwanda, a number of forums will be held in order to involve a number of influencer voices and audiences. I respectfully present some voices that must be included in these forums.
Rwanda is expecting up to 300 delegates, including two official youth delegates from each member country, as well as key youth sector stakeholders.
The Commonwealth proudly boasts aspirational rhetoric about its young people: ‘We are all very different – but we work together‘ proclaims its website for YoungCommonwealth children, ‘There are LOTS of us in our family. And more than half of us are young people just like you.‘. But the reality is that in nations where homophobic laws are still practised, there are possibly hundreds of millions of Commonwealth people – potentially one in ten of the population – in danger of being disowned or harmed or killed by their family or community, based solely upon their sexuality or gender identity. This appalling statistic suggests that the harm is not confined simply to affected individuals but to whole families, communities and nations. This is a form of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide that is on par with the Holocaust or colonial-era slavery.
When a young gay poet and friend of mine was murdered with apparent impunity in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, I asked why the name of George Floyd is known around the world, but the name of Trinidad Jerry is not. Apparently, Black Lives Matter unless you are LGBT+ in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and other Commonwealth countries. “The reason we’ve been ignored is simply because the world considers queer lives dispensable, more so when you are a queer African, and even more so when you’re a queer African refugee,” answered Lucretia, also in Kenya.
Is this the world – and the Commonwealth – that one billion young people want to grow up in? I suspect not. When is the Commonwealth going to do something about it?
Rwanda anticipates up to 500 delegates from varied stakeholder groups. Leaders from all domains, including civil society, youth, activists, academics, influencers, policy experts, philanthropists, the corporate sector, and experts from all industries in the Commonwealth well beyond, will be included.
Human Dignity Trust reports that on top of obvious problems with autonomy, privacy, safety, family violence and social prejudice, ‘Lesbians and bisexual women also face discrimination in education, employment, health care and housing on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation. These forms of social and economic exclusion and marginalisation are common to all LGBT people, although lesbians and bisexual women may experience some of them in a different way.’ (‘Breaking the Silence: Criminalisation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women and its Impacts’, May 2016, p. 28)
The Trust further asserts: ‘a comparison of … countries that criminalise homosexuality versus those that do not criminalise homosexuality (in any form) illustrates that there is a significant correlation between gender inequality and the criminalisation of homosexuality.’ (‘Breaking the Silence p. 18).
An anonymous lesbian friend of mine tells me: “In Uganda, we [are] running every day because of people who not like us.” This friend tells me that she even fled from a refugee camp in Kenya due to homophobic violence.
Women can and should demand better gender-based governance from Commonwealth leadership, including the intersection of justice based upon gender and sexuality.
The Commonwealth People’s Forum brings together civil society representatives from around the Commonwealth to examine fundamental challenges plaguing Commonwealth citizens. It is the most critical single occasion for civil society to connect with Commonwealth leaders on global development challenges.
“I see human rights as the struggles of ordinary people to hold those in power to account – particularly power that is abused by those in government or corporations. These days we have become more conscious of abuse of power by non-state actors as well…
“It does not matter whether we are talking about this at the level of a violent husband, or an abusive landlord, or a government criminalising people because of who they are, or states playing games with people’s lives at the UN Security Council. All of these are about the abuse of power against the powerless. And this is why we need some rules of the game, why we need human rights.” ~ Salil Shetty.
#CHOGM22 is an opportunity for ordinary people to make Commonwealth leaders accountable for decades of homophobia and related bad governance. The Human Dignity Trust has published evidence-based studies to show that, ‘In addition to the criminalisation of homosexuality being an indicator of poor governance and poor human rights in and of itself, countries that criminalise tend to rank poorly on other indicators too’.
The Commonwealth proclaims that it, ‘works … to promote democracy, good governance, peace and the rule of law.’ In the name of the good governance to which the Commonwealth aspires, homophobia must be abolished and legislation must protect the human rights of LGBT+ people.
One anonymous African asylum seeker reports that she has even been denied basic services and assistance due to homophobia: “All LGBTs in Kenya need help because they stand no chance of having life in Kenya. I want the world to know about it and those who can help LGBTs especially in Kakuma refugee camp, please do because it’s real hell on Earth.”
Hosted as a partnership between the Government of Rwanda and Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC) this year’s forum will address the CHOGM theme ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’, with a focus on “A Global Reset”, dealing with the impact of the pandemic and the Commonwealth’s role in rebuilding and reinvigorating the global economy.
Businesses across the Commonwealth need to show leadership in recognising that human rights abuse is bad for business, and that rebuilding the world does not mean simply repeating bad and faulty practices from the past; it means making things better. The CHOGM Golf Tournament will not be enough to change the world.
In its published, ‘Study on the Economic Cost of LGBTI+ Exclusion in the Commonwealth’ (2020, page 3), the Kaleidoscope International Trust reports: “Studies show that LGBTI+ inclusion through education, social welfare, and access to health services and the ability to earn a livelihood creates conditions which enhance the generation of financial resources that can then be used to address larger national financial objectives. In effect, the ‘business case’ and the ‘moral case’ for LGBT+ inclusion are not mutually exclusive.”
In its study on ‘Criminalising Homosexuality and International Business: the Economic and Business Cases for Decriminalisation’ (November 2015), the Human Dignity Trust noted on page 9:
In a related preliminary study for the World Bank released in February 2014, ‘The Economic Cost of Homophobia & the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India’, the impact of homophobia on the Indian economy was assessed. This preliminary report estimated the cost of homophobia to have been between US$1.9 and US$30.8 billion in 2012 alone (or up to 1.7% of total GDP). This estimate included lost productivity caused by social exclusion and health-related costs and losses arising from HIV, depression and suicide. Commenting on her research on India, Professor Badgett stated:
“Our recent study shows that emerging economies that protect more rights for LGBT people through decriminalization of homosexuality, nondiscrimination laws, and recognition of LGBT families have higher GDP per capita, even after controlling for other influences on a country’s economic output. Each additional right is associated with a 3% increase in GDP per capita for those countries.”
The business forum theme: ‘Advancing Together: Delivering people-centered governance through the Commonwealth’ needs to recognise that human rights abuse is bad governance and unprofitable for business. It is also bad for international relations.
4. Time For Action
In 2014, Dr Paula Gerber in Australia asked a pointed question while highlighting Commonwealth human rights atrocities that continue nearly a decade later: “The Commonwealth should be a forum for advancing human rights across all its member states but unfortunately for LGBTI citizens this is not the case… we need to ask some tough questions: should Australia… continue to be a member of an international body where the majority of countries can jail, if not kill, gays?”
In the UK in 2022, activist Peter Tatchell was more pointed:
“These anti-LGBT+ laws violate the Commonwealth Charter which pledges that all member states are ‘committed to equality’ and ‘opposed to all forms of discrimination.”
“Commonwealth leaders refuse to recognise that LGBT+ rights are human rights. For over 50 years, they’ve vetoed any discussion of the issue at their heads of government meetings.”
“Countries that criminalise LGBT+ people should be suspended from the Commonwealth.”
While this might seem an extreme move, it would be entirely consistent with past international approaches to sporting (and other) boycotts related to protesting apartheid, wars and other international human rights abuses. Just as Russia today is facing world sanctions for its unprovoked aggression against the Ukraine, Commonwealth nations that continue to abuse their own people need to be told unambiguously that the modern world no longer tolerates such behaviour.
5. World Public Opinion and History Will Judge #CHOGM2022
This Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Rwanda during June 2022 is an opportunity for Commonwealth nations to collectively uphold their principles of equality and anti-discrimination. This meeting must address homophobic laws and demand that Commonwealth nations repeal these laws. This CHOGM must produce positive results if the Commonwealth wishes to be seen as a relevant global agency in the 21st century, instead of an entity that is still clinging to outdated colonial-era laws.
Human Rights Watch has called upon the Commonwealth to demand that the Rwandan government redress its human rights abuses during the CHOGM meeting. Similarly, a call can be made for all Commonwealth governments to redress their slower, but equally violent, homophobic ethnic cleansing.
In 1979, Commonwealth Heads of Government proclaimed that they ‘have decided to proclaim our desire to work jointly as well as severally for the eradication of all forms of racism and racial prejudice’ and to work ‘to the achievement of equal rights for all citizens’ against ‘the dangerous evils of racism and racial prejudice’ (The Lusaka Declaration of the Commonwealth on Racism and Racial Prejudice, Zambia, 1979). These noble sentiments sound hollow when considering that a generation later, CHOGM has repeatedly refused to work for the equality of millions of its own LGBT citizens against the equally dangerous evils of homophobia and heterosexism. It is time for modern laws to reflect modern understandings of human rights and equality. Homophobia and heterosexist privilege have no place in the Commonwealth, just as white supremacy and apartheid are rightly no longer tolerated.
This CHOGM meeting will be a test of the Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth @commonwealthsec. On her twitter feed, she proclaims: ‘Life is for living – be the change!’ Let’s see her (and all #CHOGM2022 delegates) live up to these same principles. The world is watching.
©2022 Geoff Allshorn