Breakthrough: Commonwealth chief backs LGBT rights

A first by the Secretary General at the Commonwealth People’s Forum
Homophobic discrimination and criminalisation condemned



“Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma made history when he voiced his support for gay rights in his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) in Perth, Australia, today, Tuesday 25 October 2011,” reports Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

Mr Sharma was addressing the ngo CPF delegates ahead of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which begins on Friday.

The Commonwealth Secretary General said:

“We recall the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, which includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding. This means we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity. 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,” Mr Sharma told the CPF delegates.

“We welcome Kamalesh Sharma’s defence of gay human rights. He has shown strong leadership by making it clear that homophobic persecution is incompatible with the Commonwealth’s values of equality, human rights and non-discrimination,” said Mr Tatchell.

“His speech is a tacit rebuke to the more than 40 Commonwealth member states that continue to criminalise homosexuality, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment.
They comprise more than half the countries in the world that treat same-sex relations as a serious criminal offence.

“This is the first time that any Commonwealth Secretary General has ever condemned discrimination and criminalisation on the grounds of sexual identity at the CPF. It is only the second time in history that a Secretary General has criticised homophobic persecution at a Commonwealth event. The first time was at the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in Sydney in July, when Mr Sharma stated that ‘vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with the fundamental values of the Commonwealth.’

“We hope Mr Sharma will again make history by repeating his commitment to gay human rights in his keynote address on Friday to the Commonwealth Presidents and Prime Ministers at CHOGM. No Secretary General has ever said at CHOGM that Commonwealth member states should end homophobic persecution,” added Mr Tatchell.

Mr Sharma’s statement follows months of intensive lobbying by the Peter Tatchell Foundation, Justice for Gay Africans, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and other LGBT and human rights organisations from the global north and global south, including the Commonwealth People’s Forum, Commonwealth Foundation, International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Commonwealth HIV/AIDS Action Group and Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations.

A copy of Peter Tatchell’s September letter to Kamalesh Sharma, urging him to speak out against homophobic persecution in the Commonwealth, follows below.

These are the four proposals that Peter Tatchell and other lesbian and gay rights campaigners want to see on the official CHOGM agenda and that they want all Commonwealth member states to adopt:

1. Decriminalisation of homosexuality
2. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
3. The enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from hate crimes
4. Consultation and dialogue with LGBT organisations

Note: Peter Tatchell has been involved in lobbying the Commonwealth for nearly 30 years, on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights and other democratic, humanitarian and development issues.

Peter Tatchell’s letter to the Commonwealth Secretary General

Secretary General
The Commonwealth

12 September 2011

Dear Kamalesh Sharma,

Re CHOGM in Perth in October – LGBT equality and human rights

First, let me thank you very much for your speech at the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in July, where you stated that “vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation are at odds with the values of the Commonwealth”.

This was, of course, only the latest of a number of positive statements that you have made in affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights.

We greatly appreciate you showing leadership on this issue.

We note that we have not heard any negative responses from member state governments to your humanitarian outreach to the LGBT citizens of the Commonwealth family of nations. We hope this will give you the confidence to continue and strengthen your public commitment to LGBT human rights.

Second, we were very grateful to be granted a meeting in August with the Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, at Marlborough House. It was a constructive dialogue and we trust that it has secured new understanding between us, and will lead to further constructive engagement.

We hope the common ground we found at this meeting – concerning the need to tackle homophobia and transphobia – will embolden you to act in private and public to defend LGBT human rights, particularly right now in Uganda, where the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is likely to be revived, and in Cameroon, where the on-going arrest, jailing and mistreatment of men on charges of homosexuality is a matter of grave concern.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has details of the repression in Cameroon. I would urge you to news release a statement appealing to the government of Cameroon to halt its persecution of LGBT people; with specific reference to the fact that such persecution is incompatible with Commonwealth values and international humanitarian law.

Third, I write to you regarding this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia.

I am working with a number of LGBT, human rights and Commonwealth ngos, including the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

We are collectively urging that LGBT human rights be put on the agenda of CHOGM in October. We hope that you can assist us in this respect.

CHOGM has never even discussed – let alone declared its support for – LGBT equality and human rights. It is long overdue that CHOGM addressed this humanitarian issue, which it has neglected for far too long. We hope that this year’s CHOGM will end these decades of silence and inaction.

For CHOGM to discuss LGBT human rights would be consistent with the human rights values endorsed by the Commonwealth in its 1979 Lusaka Declaration, 1991 Harare Declaration and 2009 Port of Spain Affirmation of Commonwealth Values. Article 5 of this affirmation commits Commonwealth member states to the “protection and promotion” of equality and human rights “without discrimination on any grounds.” Any grounds obviously includes the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

These are the four issues we would like to see on the CHOGM agenda and that we believe all Commonwealth member states should agree to enact:

1. Decriminalisation of homosexuality
2. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
3. The enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBT people from hate crimes
4. Consultation and dialogue with LGBT organisations

Your personal support and influence would be a big help to ensure that these important humanitarian issues are placed on the CHOGM agenda.

As you know, more than 40 Commonwealth countries currently criminalise homosexuality, mostly as a result of laws that were imposed by Britain during the colonial era and which were not repealed when these nations won their independence.

The penalties for homosexuality include 25 years jail in Trinidad and Tobago and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Several Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment: Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana.

These forty-plus Commonwealth member states account for more than half of the world’s countries that still criminalise same-sex relations.

There are, or have been, homophobic witch-hunts in several Commonwealth countries: Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Ghana.

A group of us have been working with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. They are supportive; believing that CHOGM should affirm that the Commonwealth’s commitment to equality and human rights applies to all Commonwealth citizens, including LGBT people. We hope you will concur and use your office to ensure that this happens.

Thank you for your consideration and assistance.

Sincere appreciation,

Peter Tatchell
Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
London, UK