The Commonwealth is a grouping of 53 countries, mostly former British colonies, so South Africa is a member. But unlike in South Africa, where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is forbidden by the constitution, 36 Commonwealth countries criminalise homosexuality. Most of these laws date back to the era of British colonial rule decades ago, and seven countries can impose life imprisonment for same-sex acts. Even worse, there is the death penalty in parts of northern Nigeria and rural Pakistan.
So when the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) took place in London and Windsor during April there was pressure from Human Rights and LGBT groups for change. The Peter Tatchell Foundation co-organised a petition and a protest outside Marlborough House, headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
“This petition is telling them it’s time to stop persecuting LGBT+ people,” said petition co-organiser, Peter Tatchell, when the petition with more than 104 000 signatures was handed over.
“Commonwealth leaders have refused to even discuss LGBT+ human rights for six decades. This protest is to tell them: Time’s up on blocking debate. Time’s up on legal discrimination. Time’s up on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia,” he said.
These are the four demands of the petition to the leaders of all Commonwealth nations:
• Decriminalise same-sex relations
• Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
• Enforce laws against threats and violence, to protect LGBT+ people from hate crimes
• Consult and dialogue with national LGBT+ organisations
In addressing Commonwealth leaders British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed regret for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in its former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said. “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”
“As the United Kingdom’s prime minister I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced and the legacy of discrimination, violence and death that persists today.
“Nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love and the UK stands ready to help any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.”
The move was welcomed by campaigners, but pressure remains on Commonwealth leaders to take action. The British Government has subsequently announced that they have allocated £5m to assist with scrapping homophobic laws in the Commonwealth. This may be some comfort to persecuted LGBT people in Jamaica, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Malaysia, but it is not nearly enough to achieve success.
The Human Rights Watch report, “This Alien Legacy”, shows how laws criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct were introduced across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, and the Caribbean under British rule, contributing to a climate of hostility against LGBT people. Human Rights Watch has documented how they still contribute to violence and discrimination against LGBT people in the Eastern Caribbean, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Kenya, Burma, Nigeria, Uganda, and Jamaica.
It seems our near neighbours Botswana and Namibia, maybe even Mozambique, are following a policy of avoiding prosecutions, rather like the South African government did in the decade before the new constitution was adopted. And with the demise of arch-homophobe Mugabe in Zimbabwe, there may be cause for hope there.
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