A Commonwealth of Homophobes by Peter Tatchell
Photo: Across Africa, gays and lesbians are fighting prejudice and demanding equality (Reuters: Antony Njuguna) Source
A Commonwealth of homophobes
Despite the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights, its member states include prominent anti-gay tyrannies
By Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
The Guardian – Comment is Free – London – 26 November 2009
The Commonwealth is tainted. More than a few of the leaders who will dine with the Queen this weekend at the Commonwealth nations summit in Trinidad and Tobago have blood on their hands. They abuse the human rights of their own citizens. Some retain the death penalty and condone torture and detention without trial. Others muzzle the opposition, media and civic organisations. A number are mired in corruption; having amassed huge personal wealth while most of their people live in dire poverty.
In too many countries, the key principles of the Commonwealth – human rights, equality, non-discrimination, opportunity for all, liberty of the individual and personal dignity – are routinely violated.
And what does the Commonwealth do? Mostly nothing. No expulsions, no sanctions. Not even a condemnation.
Typical is the Commonwealth’s indifference to the widespread homophobic persecution that exists in most member states. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Commonwealth citizens are at risk of arrest, torture, rape, imprisonment and extra-judicial murder.
The Commonwealth secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, has failed to speak out. In particular, he has ignored requests to condemn Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality bill, which proposes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and “serial offenders”.
This is par for the course. For two decades, successive Commonwealth leaders have shown a systematic, persistent failure to challenge homophobic discrimination and violence – no matter how extreme.
The Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, last year promised “stricter laws than Iran” and began his witch-hunt by ordering LGBT people to leave the country and threatening to “cut off the head” of any gay person who remains. The Commonwealth leadership did not rebuke him for his murderous threats.
Around 80 countries worldwide continue to outlaw homosexuality, with penalties ranging from one year’s jail to life imprisonment – and even execution. More than half of these countries are former British colonies. A majority are members of the Commonwealth, headed by the Queen.
Of the 53 Commonwealth member states, more than 40 still criminalise same-sex relations, mostly under anti-gay laws that were originally imposed by the British government in the 19th century, during the period of colonial rule.
These homophobic imperial laws, which were forced on the colonies and then retained after independence, are wrecking the lives of LGBT people throughout the Commonwealth. They criminalise otherwise law-abiding citizens and contribute to a hostile social atmosphere that demonises LGBT people as unnatural, abnormal, marginal and criminal.
This renders LGBTs liable to blackmail, imprisonment, mob violence, rejection by their families, excommunication from their faith, eviction from their homes, dismissal from their jobs; making many of them high risk for depression, mental illness and suicide. Such bigotry and ill-treatment is a stain on the Commonwealth.
According this year’s global survey by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, some Commonwealth nations rank among the most homophobic on Earth. Same-sex relations carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment in Uganda, Bangladesh, Guyana and Sierra Leone. It is 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia, and 14 years in Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi and Papua New Guinea. Twelve states in Nigeria have sharia law and the death penalty.
Earlier this month, I wrote an open letter to the Commonwealth secretary general, pointing out that he is “entrusted to defend and promote the Commonwealth’s humanitarian values” but was neglecting to so, on LGBT human rights and on a range of other humanitarian issues:
It is extremely disappointing that the Commonwealth leadership appears to not regard LGBT rights as human rights and that it has neglected to protect LGBT citizens in the Commonwealth family of nations. This inaction is de facto collusion with victimisation.
The most homophobic Commonwealth country is Uganda. The anti-homosexuality bill, currently under consideration by the Ugandan parliament, proposes the death penalty for certain homosexual acts and life imprisonment for all other same-sex behaviour, including the mere touching of another person with the intent to have gay sex. Life imprisonment is also the penalty for contracting a same-sex mariage. Membership of LGBT organisations and funding for them, advocacy of LGBT human rights and the provision of condoms or safer sex advice to LGBT people will result in a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of seven years for “promoting” homosexuality.
A person in authority who fails to report violators to the police within 24 hours will incur three years behind bars. Astonishingly, the new legislation has an extra-territorial jusridiction. It will also apply to Ugandans who commit these ‘crimes’ while living abroad, in countries where such behaviour is not a criminal offence. Violators overseas will be subjected to extradition, trial and punishment in Uganda.
The Ugandan bill violates the equality and non-discrimination provisions of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uganda is a signatory. These breaches of international humanitarian commitments undermine the right to privacy and individual liberty and thereby set a dangerous legal precedent which threatens the human rights of all Ugandans. They are part of a wider drift towards an authoritarian state. President Museveni is fast turning into another Robert Mugabe.
The anti-homosexuality bill has been condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists and the World Aids Campaign. You can lobby the Commonwealth secretary-general here. Homophobic and transphobic persecution in Uganda and other Commonwealth states breaches international human rights law. It is time the Commonwealth took a stand against it. Over to you, Kamalesh Sharma.