Belize’s Supreme Court has stroke down Section 53, an anti-sodomy law, used against LGBTI people, from the country’s legislation.
The ruling is unprecedented and historic throughout the Caribbean and likely to affect other states in the region.
According to Section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code, “Every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person … shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years.”
Section 53 is a relic of British colonial past which was challenged in 2010 by the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) headed by director Caleb Orozco as unconstitutional, with the support of attorney Lisa Shoman.
Shoman and other lawyers from the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project, The Human Dignity Trust, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association have supported Orozco’s case in the Supreme Court.
They claimed that Section 53 violates rights guaranteed in the Belizean Constitution; including the right to human dignity, personal privacy, right to equality before the law, equal protection of the law and freedom from discrimination.
In his ruling Chief justice Kenneth Benjamin accepted that Orozco prevailed on all points. He ruled that Section 53 violates Orozco’s human dignity, right to privacy, right to freedom from discrimination, freedom of expression and the equal protection of the law.
He further said his role was to defend Belize’s constitution and not make moral judgements (referring to opposition from Churches). Benjamin said that the definition of “sex” in S. 16 (3) includes sexual orientation consistent with Belize’s international obligations, and like in South Africa, the case proved Orozco could be harmed by the law and thus had standing to challenge it.
The Chief Justice ordered an amendment to Section 53 that will specify it does not apply to consenting sexual acts between adults of the same gender.
Benjamin reiterated that the Supreme Court may consider, but should not act on public held beliefs, particularly religious views.
The Chief Justice also accepted that removing the section would help combat against HIV infection, especially among men who have sex with men (MSM), who are hampered, due to the law, in participating in testing and treatment programs.
Belize’s Supreme Court first heard the case in May 2013 and Benjamin was due to rule on the constitutionality of Section 53 of the Criminal Code in July but had to reschedule due to his health.
The ruling comes as a great victory to Orozco and other LGBTI people from Belize, who faced demonisation by Church groups throughout Belize and often described by the media as being part of a “homosexual lobby”.
As he left the court, Orozco told KaleidoScot: “We won on all grounds: dignity, right to privacy, right to freedom from discrimination, freedom of expression and the equal protection of the law. The fight was hard won, threats, intimidation and security did not stop the drive to advancing the concern for rights protection and enforcement.
“The decision today is deeply fulfilling, I am elated for myself, but more so for all of LGBTIQ people in Belize. The Supreme Court set a historic precedent in the country, and in the Caribbean more widely, by upholding the dignity and equality of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. Though I know much has yet to be done to change attitudes in my country, this is a momentous step, and I could not be more proud,” said Orozco, in response to the ruling.
According to Orozco there are around 30 cases languishing in the judicial system relating to Section 53.
The Roman Catholic Church of Belize, the Belize Church of England and the Belize Evangelical Association of Churches are partners opposing to Orozco’s case.
Lisa Shoman told KaleidoScot that this historic ruling “is game changing and ground breaking”.
She added: “One of the most cutting edge things to come out of this, and it may have escaped some, is the interpretation in Section Sixteen-three of the word sex. When you are talking about discrimination you are no longer allowed to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation. The Chief Justice actually expressed in his decision the view that sex also meant sexual orientation. So that is extremely far-reaching.”
The striking down of Section 53 has far reaching ramifications beyond Belize, as it may pressurise other member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to decriminalise homosexuality.
Speaking with KaleidoScot, Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer, who was involved in the case said: “Love won today in Belize! After a three plus year wait the Chief Justice of Belize delivered a judgment that nullifies the country’s archaic anti-sodomy law and this decision will have immediate implications for the other 10 Caribbean countries that still hold fast to these British colonially-imposed edicts.
“This decisive victory for the human rights of marginalized and vulnerable LGBTI people in Belize was a team effort involving local and international partners, many experts, and mountains of legal filings. There was also a formidable obstacle that had to be overcome, which is a culture inured in anti-gay rhetoric fomented by homophobic religious extremists, many of whom have strong foreign connections.
“Although not binding on the rest of the Caribbean states, the jurisprudence in this case will be highly persuasive, especially in my own challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law that is currently before the Supreme Court. I applaud the brilliance of the legal team and the tenacity of the claimant, Caleb Orozco, who weathered many storms and fought many personal and political battles to achieve this human rights victory for himself and the entire region.”
Other campaigners also congratulated Orozco for the ruling, speaking with KaleidoScot, Peter Tatchell said: “Congratulations to Caleb Orozco, UNIBAM and all Belize LGBTI campaigners. This is an amazing, ground-breaking result. It paves the way for other Caribbean countries to follow suit and decriminalise homosexuality. The Belize ruling sets a precedent, which will give hope and confidence to LGBTI activists that they can also challenge their homophobic laws and potentially win.
“I am so proud of Caleb. He has stood firm, despite all the threats and abuse he has received. What a wonderful, inspiring legal victory.”