In 1949 the London Declaration formally established the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of nation states, former territories of the British Empire in the main. Today it is an organisation of 53 member states, ostensibly united by language, history, culture and core values and principles enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter; democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
For the first time in my memory, we are being encouraged to celebrate Commonwealth Day. The Fly a Flag for the Commonwealth project, an initiative promoted by the Peter Virdee foundation, will see most local authorities in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man hosting civic flag-raising events on 10 March.
However for many people, the Commonwealth is not the champion of human rights it claims to be. In 2013 the Kaleidoscope Trust published Speaking Out, the rights of LGBTI citizens from across the Commonwealth, reporting that
“The Commonwealth, which accounts for 30% of the world population, has shown a stubborn refusal to address the human rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) citizens. Of the 78 countries worldwide that still criminalise consensual and private adult same-sex sexual acts, over a half are Commonwealth members states. Nearly 80% of the countries making up the Commonwealth – 41 out of 53 – still maintain such laws and show few signs of accepting that the organisation’s Charter commitment to opposing ‘all forms of discrimination’ must include discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.”
LGBTI issues have been a contentious issue within the Commonwealth for some time. In October 2011 a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG) published A Time for Urgent Reform. Having heard evidence that the decriminalization of same-sex sexual acts helped to reduce rates of HIV infection, and noting that it was an issue which could
“call into question the commitment of member states to the Commonwealth’s fundamental values and principles including fundamental human rights and non-discrimination”
the EPG recommended that:
“Heads of Government should take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and commit to programmes of education that would help a process of repeal of such laws.” (Recommendation 60)
In December 2012 the Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth nations adopted recommendation 60, although they qualified it with the caveat that member states
“have the discretion to identify which, if any laws are considered discriminatory, and the steps deemed appropriate to address these.”
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which followed the 2011 EPG did not formally address the matter of LGBT rights although it was addressed in plenary sessions. However in agreeing the Commonwealth Charter in March 2013 the Commonwealth Heads of Government reinforced the Commitment by all Commonwealth nations to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.
International law supports the position that “gender” and “other grounds” must include LGBTI people but, in the words of Dr Purna Sen, Chair of the Kaleidoscope Trust, and former head of human rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, in his Introduction to the Speaking Out report:
“By refusing explicitly to reject discrimination against LGBTI people it let them down once again.
“The wording is almost identical to that in the 2009 Trinidad and Tobago Affirmation of Values. Despite the Secretary General’s encouraging words, in four years the organisation has made little or no real progress on the issue. In four years time will we be forced to reach the same conclusion?
“This cannot go on. Rightly lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people are demanding that they be recognised and that their rights – which are exactly the same rights to which every other Commonwealth citizen is or should be afforded, are protected under the law. The immediate demands outlined below are simple and speak for themselves. By themselves they would not deliver the equality to which LGBTI people are entitled, but they would show that the Commonwealth is sincere when it claims to be an organization that believes in universal human rights applicable to all persons throughout the Commonwealth in accordance with the principles of international law.”
Since the publication of ‘Speaking Out’, the situation has deteriorated further. In December 2013 the Supreme Court in India affirmed that although section 377 of the Penal Code, which outlawed “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, may violate human rights, it could not be held to be unconstitutional; it was for Parliament to determine whether it should remain on the statute books. On 13 January 2014 the President of Nigeria assented to a law which banned gay organisations, same-sex marriage and public displays of homosexuality. On 24 February 2014 the President of Uganda passed into law a bill which increased the penalty for first time offenders convicted of same-sex sexual acts to 14 years, and which criminalised the failure to report gay people to the authorities.
LGBTI people might well then wonder why we should celebrate Commonwealth Day. The Sochi Winter Olympics raised a similar dilemma, with public opinion divided on the merits of a boycott. Having recently filmed ‘Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia’, an expose of the impact of the anti-gay legislation passed by the Russian government in June 2013, Oscar Rickett of Vice.com was well placed to offer an informed position:
“Homophobia in Russia is rife at the moment – you only need to see our film, you must see our film – but it’s worth remembering that it’s a problem in the West as well. More importantly, our politicians, athletes and celebrities must listen to Russia’s gay community. They must go to Sochi and put Russia in the international spotlight in the hope that Putin and his cronies will re-consider their awful, divisive law. Because in Sochi, gay rights activists from Russia, supported by their friends around the world, will stand up and draw attention to a situation that needs to change – even if that means having to do it in a park seven miles from any Winter Olympians.”
As in Russia, LGBTI activists in the Commonwealth do not want us to remain silent. On 7 March we have been called upon by LGBTI people in Nigeria to join in a Global Day of Action to stand against homophobia and human rights violations in Nigeria. ‘Speaking Out’ would not have happened without the contributions of people across the Commonwealth who have spoken out against oppression. As Dr Purna Sen tells us:
“Although not claiming to be a complete account of all the many social, legal and economic challenges facing LGBTI people in the Commonwealth, this report illustrates some of those challenges. Most importantly however, it provides a platform for the voices of LGBTI people from around the Commonwealth – voices that too often go unheeded by Commonwealth governments and the institutions of the Commonwealth itself.”
At the heart of the Commonwealth we do not find institutions and nations, but people, and in our iteration of the Commonwealth Affirmation on Commonwealth Day we are called to celebrate the diverse lived experiences of the people of the Commonwealth. These by definition must include its LGBTI citizens, the vast majority of whom live in nations in which they can be prosecuted and even imprisoned. Flying the Rainbow flag in tandem with the Commonwealth flag is an apposite reminder to us all of the appalling discrimination which they encounter and makes it very difficult to ignore the fact that when we pledge
“to support the Commonwealth, working together for a future in which there is freedom and justice and prosperity for all, with peace and understanding between peoples and nations”
we are working towards a Commonwealth in which LGBTI people are free to live their lives without fear of persecution.