Over the past ten years calls to improve the rights and opportunities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people have increased globally. Commonwealth member states have come under particular scrutiny for their treatment of LGBT people. This criticism has often taken as its starting point the fact that 41 of the 53 members of the Commonwealth criminalise same-sex activity in some way. Much of this legislation is based upon colonial-era anti-sodomy laws promulgated by the British Empire, presenting a particular challenge for the modern Commonwealth given its colonial heritage. In a number of cases these laws have expanded to prohibit same-sex activity between women. Furthermore, very few Commonwealth countries have laws that recognise the gender identity of trans people or protect their rights.
Numerous activists and several national leaders have used Commonwealth events to draw attention to this problem and condemn specific countries with poor records on LGBT rights. The debate has become polarised between ‘pro-LGBT’ nations, largely seen as coming from the West, and ‘anti-LGBT’ nations, largely seen as coming from the non-West, obscuring the reality of a variety of progressive developments within the Commonwealth. A new report by the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Kaleidoscope Trust seeks to bring these positive developments to the fore and outlines the potential for the Commonwealth network to address LGBT issues.
Collaboration and Consensus: Building A Constructive Commonwealth Approach to LGBT Rights traces the evolution of discussions about LGBT rights within the official structures of the Commonwealth. Statements of Commonwealth values including the 1971 Singapore Declaration, 1991 Harare Declaration and, most recently, the Commonwealth Charter have successively become more committed to anti-discrimination and human rights. The Commonwealth Youth Forum since 2005, and the Commonwealth People’s Forum since 2007, have officially expressed concern over the treatment of LGBT people in their outcome statements. The Commonwealth has also provided an opportunity to forge progress through new networks and initiatives. The creation of the Commonwealth Equality Network, a group of human rights and LGBT advocates from 30 Commonwealth countries, and the inclusion of a permanent ‘Pride House’ for LGBT competitors, spectators and their allies at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games are just two examples highlighted in the report.
Beyond the Commonwealth network and official mechanisms Collaboration and Consensus highlights many of the positive national developments in efforts to improve the lives of LGBT people. Only last year Mozambique became the latest country to remove laws which could be used to criminalise same-sex activity. Countries as diverse as Fiji, South Africa and Malta include constitutional protections on the basis of sexual orientation and in the case of Malta and Fiji of gender identity too. Particular discussion is given to third gender rights in South Asia where existing cultural groups known locally as Hijra have seen similar struggles for rights and recognition as trans and intersex people in other parts of the Commonwealth.
However, while there have been many positive developments in the Commonwealth, there is a long way to go until LGBT people are able to enjoy their economic, social, cultural and political rights. There exists a huge spectrum of opinion on LGBT rights in the Commonwealth from different opinions on approaches to improving LGBT rights to the role of LGBT people within society. As, Consensus and Collaboration argues, the Commonwealth as an international network of states, civil society associations, inter-governmental organisations and 2.3 billion citizens is well placed to build broader agreement within this spectrum of opinion. The Commonwealth has numerous assets from its strong track record in fostering respect and understanding to its opportunities for sharing good practise which can be used by those seeking greater collaboration, consensus and progress on improving LGBT rights in the Commonwealth.
Download the full report: Collaboration and Consensus: Building A Constructive Commonwealth Approach to LGBT Rights