For the first time the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people have been included by the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the official civil society gathering held in advance of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Two sessions were held as part of the official forum agenda which explored the impact of discrimination and criminalisation on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and also reflect growing progress in Commonwealth countries for LGBTI rights.
The first of these was an innovative policy dialogue between LGBTI activists from across the Commonwealth and policy makers including UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development Minister, Baroness Sandip Verma, and Maltese Minister for Civil Liberties, Dr Helena Dalli.
The dialogue also included activists from across the Commonwealth including from some of the 40 of the 53 Commonwealth countries that still criminalise consensual, adult same-sex activity and where LGBTI people face discrimination and persecution, and in some cases even the death penalty. A new report released this week by the Kaleidoscope Trust shows that 90% of Commonwealth citizens live in a jurisdiction that criminalises LGBTI people.
After decades of inaction in the Commonwealth change is happening. At the event Dr Dalli said: “We need to ensure that when the dust settles on this CHOGM, all political leaders will remember the voices of LGBTI people for recognition and respect during this Forum, and act on them in concrete ways.”
Caleb Orozco, a Belizean activist and member of the Commonwealth Equality Network said, “The opportunity for political change exists. The Commonwealth can build on the experience of the Organisation of American States and take a stand against violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It will need communication and a commitment to engage and act between the region’s institutions. This CHOGM is a good start.”
The Malta Declaration, the official statement of the People’s Forum, called on Commonwealth leaders to follow the example of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the Organisation of American States and condemn violence on any grounds. It states that “criminalisation, violence, discrimination and exclusion faced by LGBTI people hinders the resilience of societies. Inclusive societies are stronger, more innovative and therefore more resilient.”
These historic discussions are just one example of policy makers overseeing progress on equality and followed remarks made by the Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma that, “We embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity. Discrimination and criminalisation in any form on grounds of sexual orientation is incompatible with our Commonwealth values.”
CHOGM comes a year after Scotland held the most LGBTI friendly Commonwealth Games in the event’s history.
Scott Cuthbertson, a representative of Scottish LGBTI charity the Equality Network, who was in attendance in Malta, said: “A year after the Commonwealth Games came to Scotland we have seen historic progress within the Commonwealth on LGBTI issues. LGBTI people remain criminalized in 40 of the 53 member countries but this CHOGM marks a historic step forward with LGBTI people at the heart of the people’s forum discussions.
“Change comes from within and LGBTI people are increasingly finding their voice in the Commonwealth.”
Veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the announcement but also advised caution. He told KaleidoScot: “The Commonwealth People’s Forum has previously discussed LGBTI rights but this is a breakthrough – the first time it has included LGBTI equality in its official declaration. However, the Forum has no power and its proposals are routinely ignored by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Moreover, the official Commonwealth agenda at CHOGM 2015 has again refused to discuss, let alone support, LGBTI equality. This is the 66th year that Commonwealth leaders have refused to allow LGBTI rights on their official agenda. It is a total disgrace and a shameful failure to honour the human rights principles of the Commonwealth Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”