The Commonwealth Secretariat has been presented with proposals to put LGBT+ equality on the agenda of the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which will take place in the UK in April, according to human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Photo: Peter Tatchell Foundation

CHOGM leaders have previously always refused to discuss or support LGBT+ issues and concerns.

The proposals were published last year by Tatchell in a bid to challenge the criminalisation of same-sex relations in 36 out of the 52 Commonwealth member states and to ensure legal protection against discrimination and hate crime for the Commonwealth’s estimated 100–200 million LGBT+ citizens.

“LGBT+ issues have never been discussed, not even once, in any of the CHOGM leaders sessions over the last six decades. I have personally tried to get them on the agenda at CHOGM for 30 years and been rebuffed every time. Surely in 2018 we can at least have a discussion with the Commonwealth leaders? This discussion must be in the main summit and not side-lined to the NGO Commonwealth People’s Forum, as has happened in the past,” said Tatchell.

“Drawing on suggestions from diverse Commonwealth LGBT+ activists, the Peter Tatchell Foundation has proposed to the Commonwealth Secretariat a four-point strategy for advancing LGBT+ rights at CHOGM:

“First, criticism and condemnation of anti-gay countries won’t work and will be counter-productive, especially if it comes from Western nations like Britain, Canada and Australia. This would be construed as Western diktat and neo-colonialism. Instead, the Commonwealth needs to give a platform to pro-LGBT+ advocates from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean and Pacific. Their voices will carry much more weight and influence.

“Second, the Commonwealth Secretariat should facilitate an event at CHOGM where pro-LGBT+ Commonwealth leaders and church people, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda, and the former Presidents and Botswana and Mozambique, Festus Mogae and Joaquim Chissano, address the assembled Commonwealth heads of government on why they support LGBT+ rights as human rights. Voices from African ex-leaders and from respected African Christians will be the most impactful and effective.

“Third, it would be helpful if the Commonwealth Secretariat or a sympathetic non-Western state hosted a meeting during CHOGM with LGBT+ representatives from across the Commonwealth, where they can speak to the gathered Commonwealth leaders.

“These grassroots LGBT+ voices, telling their stories of personal discrimination and violence, are likely to have the greatest resonance and impact; especially because many Commonwealth leaders may not have met a LGBT+ person and never dialogued with their national LGBT+ organisations.

“Fourth, after these speeches, Commonwealth leaders could be invited to sign a statement along these lines: ‘Commonwealth member states, inspired by the human rights principles of the Commonwealth Charter, commit to ending the persecution of LGBT+ citizens and agree to work towards the following goals:

• 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’

“Securing unanimity and consensus on this state ment is unlikely to be possible but all nations willing to do so should be asked to sign. Even if only twenty countries signed that would be a positive move forward from zero. It would set a benchmark that could be built upon in years to come.

“This strategic approach is designed to defuse opposition and empower support for LGBT+ equality and non-discrimination in ways that are likely to win over the maximum possible number of Commonwealth nations.

“Two thousand and eighteen must be the year of change. Commonwealth countries account for half of the world’s 72 nations where same-sex relations are illegal, mostly under laws imposed by Britain when it was the colonial power. Seven Commonwealth member states stipulate life imprisonment. In parts of Pakistan and Nigeria, there is the death penalty for men who have sex with men. Hate crimes against LGBT+ people are widespread and unchecked in most Commonwealth countries. The vast majority of LGBT+ people living in the Commonwealth have no legal protection against discrimination in employment, housing and the provision of goods and services. This makes a mockery of Commonwealth values and the human rights principles of the Commonwealth Charter. CHOGM 2018 must remedy these failings by hearing the voices of LGBT+ Commonwealth citizens and their allies – and then acting to support their human rights,” said Tatchell.

Writing for the Guardian in April 2016, Lewis Brooks and Felicity Daly pointed out that the modern Commonwealth is a paradox. On the one hand, it is a reminder of the British empire; on the other, a network seeking contemporary relevance to uphold universal values of human rights, democracy and equal opportunities for prosperity.

The problem is that this is a voluntary association of sovereign states, and while some support its consensus-based decision-making, others are deeply critical of its reluctance to sanction serious human rights violators. And so the Commonwealth is caught between the human rights agenda being advanced by some member states, and allegations of neocolonialism and an imposition of Western values from others.

No issue exemplifies these tensions better than the struggle to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Sexual activity between consenting same-sex adults is criminalised in 40 of the 53 Commonwealth member states, and many of these fail to recognise or uphold the rights of trans citizens. The background to this is the legacy of imperialism. Laws used to persecute LGBT people today are often remnants of those imposed by the British colonialists. While same sex relationships between men were the original target for criminalisation, many laws have since evolved to criminalise same sex relationships between women and/or increase penalties for offenders.

Can the modern Commonwealth, once described by Nelson Mandela as making “the world safe for diversity”, help improve the rights of LGBT people by fostering opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and mutual support for policy progress? It would be vital for those activists on the frontlines of the struggle for equality around the world. Facing discrimination, persecution and in some cases violence, many LGBT activists from the Commonwealth have built strong bonds of solidarity and are working collectively to convince governments to do the same.

Last year in Malta, at the Commonwealth heads-of-government meeting, Barbadian lesbian activist Donnya Piggott, above, representing The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), became the first person to address Commonwealth foreign ministers on the lived reality of LGBT citizens of the Commonwealth. Piggott’s address, and the interventions of other TCEN members, were brilliant examples of the persuasive power of southern LGBT activists leading the conversation.

Such activism is resulting in the emergence of progressive policy. New research on those rights in the Commonwealth aims to show how Commonwealth governments have made progress on LGBT rights and present best practice that other governments can learn from. In 2015, Mozambique repealed the Portuguese colonial-era ban on consensual same sex activity between adults. In the same year, Kenyan judges asserted that the Kenyan constitution “includes all persons living within the republic of Kenya despite their sexual orientation” and conferred the right to freedom of association, ordered the government to register the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Countries as diverse as Botswana, Seychelles and St Lucia have included anti-discrimination clauses in employment laws which protect LGBT people and Malta recently joined Fiji in specifically addressing sexual orientation and gender identity in its constitution, echoing South Africa – the first country in the world to constitutionally protect gay and lesbian citizens.