Progress on rights for LGBT people in Commonwealth countries remains painfully slow. Will the new Secretary-General use her tenure to do her bit for human rights and the HIV response and push for the decriminalisation of homosexuality?
On 1 April, Baroness Patricia Scotland took office as the sixth Commonwealth Secretary-General. She was elected at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November 2015 in Malta and succeeds Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma.
Progress in Malta
The CHOGM in Malta was an historic moment for the Commonwealth LGBT community as for the first time LGBT issues were discussed at the People’s Forum. Secretary-General Sharma said that ‘discrimination and criminalisation in any form on grounds of sexual orientation is incompatible with our Commonwealth values’ and the host Prime Minister Muscat called for LGBT equality. Equally, Secretary-General Scotland has committed to tackling the criminalisation of LGBT people during her tenure.
This represents great strides forward for the LGBT community. Unfortunately, the reality remains that 40 out of 53 Commonwealth countries still criminalise LGBT people. In an intergovernmental organisation that promotes the core values of equality and non-discrimination, this is unacceptable.
To coincide with CHOGM, we launched the Paradise or Persecution campaign to raise awareness of the number of top holiday destinations in the Commonwealth that still criminalise same-sex activity and since then we have seen some progress. The Seychelles has recently announced plans to scrap the law that criminalises homosexuality, hopefully by the end of 2016. Tourism accounts for nearly 20% of the Seychelles’ GDP – and the industry employs 15 percent of the country’s workforce. However, it has largely remained a ‘no-go’ area for LGBT tourism due to anti-homosexuality law. Although convictions under the law are very rare, this colonial hang-over perpetuates an environment of discrimination and violence.
Criminalisation and HIV
Despite this progress, it is really concerning that the Seychelles represents the exception rather than the rule in a region that is conversely seeing a rise in anti-gay sentiment. We are concerned about the criminalisation of homosexuality across the Commonwealth because of the crushing impact it has on the HIV response. Criminalisation only serves to drive and deepen the persecution many LGBT Commonwealth citizens face, to undermine the HIV response amongst LGBT people and deny their human rights. It will be impossible to end AIDS until all people – regardless of their identity or sexuality – can get access to health services and treatment.
More to be done
Anti-gay laws in the Commonwealth are a legacy of the British colonial era and the Paradise or Persecution petitioncalled on the Commonwealth Secretary-General to do more to get rid of these laws. Support from the Secretary-General to repeal Section 377 in India would, for example, add a powerful voice to the campaign and give a boost to the advocates in the country.
The next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will take place in the UK in 2018. This offers Secretary-General Scotland an opportunity to work with a strong LGBT community and a progressive host to ensure LGBT issues are a substantive item on the official CHOGM agenda.
We welcome Secretary-General Scotland into her new role and wish her every success as she takes on this important position.