Baroness Patricia Scotland, the next Secretary General of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), hopes to ensure LGBTI rights are firmly on the agenda in 2018.
She stated that she intends to talk to member governments soon, with a view to reaching a consensus, but acknowledged she cannot force Commonwealth governments to discuss decriminalisation, saying: “we do not have the right or opportunity to force states, but we can…work with them so they understand the economic issues in relations to human rights and make the change.”
Earlier this year, prior to the main CHOGM meeting, the Commonwealth People’s Forum debated LGBTI issues for the first time. The historic Forum meeting, chaired by Baroness Sandip Verma – the UK’s Under Secretary of State for International Development – discussed how to “safeguard the security of all people in all their diversity.”
Last week UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn both cited the treatment of LGBTI people as one of the reasons for supporting air strikes in Syria. Yet, currently, 40 of the 53 Commonwealth countries have anti-LGBTI laws. According to campaign group Kaleidoscope Trust, 90% of LGBTI people in the Commonwealth live in countries where they are criminalised. Brunei, Maldives and the part of Nigeria under Sharia law have the death penalty as an option for homosexuals. In other countries the penalties range from fines to the possibility of life imprisonment in Tanzania, Uganda, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Ironically, many of these laws are hangovers from the Empire, when British rule introduced anti-gay legislation.
Felicity Daly, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, welcomes Baroness Scotland’s announcement. She said: “The Commonwealth…must play a vital role in ensuring equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Stuart Russell, a Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society, told KaleidoScot: “As a gay Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society, I want equal rights for all LGBTI people in all Commonwealth nations. I did not accept my Fellowship lightly: the whole point of the Royal Commonwealth Society is to improve the lives and prospects of all Commonwealth citizens across the world. Why should so many LGBTI people be openly excluded from discussions.”
He added: “The equality of LGBTI people throughout the Commonwealth should not be sidelined for a later date. Equality is wanted now! Consensual sex between adults should not be illegal. It is not any government’s right to dictate sexual preference. Let’s hope Baroness Patricia Scotland stays true to her promise and manages to decriminalise homosexuality in 40 countries.”
Baroness Scotland has dual citizenship of the United Kingdom and her country of birth Dominica, where homosexual activity can result in 10 years in prison or incarceration in a psychiatric institution, where transsexuals cannot legally change their gender and where violence against LGBTI people is commonplace.