Bid to put LGBT rights on Commonwealth agenda

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The Commonwealth association of nations is being urged to discuss the decriminalisation of homosexuality and other LGBT human rights issues at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which is being held in Perth, Australia, from 28 to 30 October this year.

The call is being made by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Director of the PTF, who has written to the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague MP, requesting that he lobby the CHOGM host government, Australia, to put LGBT issues on the agenda.

The full text of Mr Tatchell’s letter to William Hague follows below.

In his letter to the Foreign Secretary, Mr Tatchell states:

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

Decriminalisation of homosexuality
Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
The enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBT people from hate crimes
Consultation and dialogue with LGBT organisations.”
He notes with concern:

“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.”

“I hope that LGBT and human rights organisations in many Commonwealth member states will lobby the Australian Foreign Minister and get their own governments to do likewise.

“Like the United Nations, the Commonwealth is a significant international forum. CHOGM’s support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality would be a symbolic and moral victory in the long global battle for LGBT human rights.

“It won’t be easy to get the issue on the CHOGM agenda and it will be even harder to get CHOGM to agree our equality demands. But we have to try. Even if we don’t succeed this year, hopefully we’ll lay the foundations for success at the next CHOGM,” said Mr Tatchell.

The Commonwealth comprises 54 countries, mostly former British colonies. They share an agreed commitment to equality and human rights. Yet more than 40 of these countries continue to uphold a total ban on homosexuality. In most instances, this criminalisation was imposed by Britain during the era of colonial occupation.

As Mr Tatchell notes in his letter to William Hague:

“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 and Ghana.”

The Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, has not spoken out against the recent arrest, jailing and mistreatment of men accused of homosexuality in Cameroon. He should show leadership by publicly pointing out to the Cameroon government that its persecution of LGBT people in incompatible with Commonwealth values,” said Mr Tatchell.

The full text of Peter Tatchell’s letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague MP

Foreign Secretary
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
London SW1A 2AH

28 August 2011

Dear William Hague

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

First, let me thank you for the efforts being made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to monitor and support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights around the world. Your initiatives in May, at the time of the International Day Against Homophobia (and against Biphobia and Transphobia), were much appreciated.

Second, as you know, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is being held in Perth, Australia, from 28 to 30 October this year.

I am working with a number of LGBT, human rights and Commonwealth ngos. We are urging that LGBT human rights be put on the CHOGM agenda.

More than 40 Commonwealth countries currently have a total ban on 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 and Ghana.

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.

A group of us have been working with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in London. They are supportive; believing that the Commonwealth should affirm that its commitment to equality and human rights applies to all Commonwealth citizens, including LGBT people.

This 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 Declaration.

We were heartened that the Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, has begun to recognise our concerns, most recently during his speech at the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in July, where he stated that “vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation are at odds with the values of the Commonwealth”.

Earlier this month we were granted a meeting with the Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, at Marlborough House. It was a constructive dialogue but the Commonwealth Secretariat clearly needs more encouragement and pressure to speak out and defend LGBT human rights. Sadly, the Secretary General has not publicly appealed for an end to Cameroon’s current persecution and jailing of men on charges of homosexuality.

Working with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, we are currently pressing for LGBT human rights to be discussed at CHOGM in October.

The host country Australia will draw up the CHOGM agenda. It will take into account agenda items proposed by the Foreign Ministers of the member states.

I would respectfully ask you to urge the Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to include LGBT rights on the CHOGM agenda.

I would also ask you to raise this issue at the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting in New York in September, with a request that they collectively call on the Australian government to ensure that LGBT human rights is discussed at CHOGM.

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

Decriminalisation of homosexuality
Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
The enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBT people from hate crimes
Consultation and dialogue with LGBT organisations
Your lobbying the Australian government would be a big help and could result (we hope) in a decision to put these important humanitarian issues on the CHOGM agenda.

Sincere appreciation,

Peter Tatchell
Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
London, UK