A Commonwealth for LGB&T people?

Publish Date: 28/10/2011

The Commonwealth of Nations is a group of 54 independent countries, most of which have some historical link to the UK, or still have the Queen as their monarch. Members of the Commonwealth work in partnership towards common values including democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all.

In contradiction with these stated values, same-sex activity is currently unlawful in 42 of the 54 member countries, often because old colonial-era UK laws which criminalise lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGB&T) people, are still in place.

Many UK and international bodies such as The Lesbian & Gay Foundation, Equal Rights Trust, All Out campaign and Kaleidoscope Trust are campaigning to raise the profile of this issue within the Commonwealth during the bi-annual annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which is currently taking place in Perth, Australia.

The UK Government committed to raise the profile of LGB&T issues throughout the Commonwealth in it’s governmental action plan ‘Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality: Moving Forward’, which was launched in September last year at The Lesbian & Gay Foundation.

On 27 October this year the Foreign Secretary William Hague told the assembled Heads of Government: “[The UK] would like to see the Commonwealth do more to promote the rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. It is wrong, in our view in Britain, that these groups continue to suffer persecution, violence and discrimination within the Commonwealth. And that many members have laws criminalising homosexuality. Britain also wants to see the death penalty abolished throughout the Commonwealth.”

In May this year, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, told a Nairobi newspaper: “I have consistently made it clear publicly that we deplore hate crimes of any nature and the vilification and targeting of gay and lesbian people runs counter to the fundamental values of the Commonwealth, which include non-discrimination on any grounds…If attitudes are to change, if homophobia is to be challenged - as it should - and if laws on homosexuality are to be reformed the best hope lies in democratic and legal processes”

Given that the Commonwealth works by “encouragement not coercion”,  what remains to be seen is if the comments of the Commonwealth Secretary-General and UK Foreign Secretary translate into improvements in the lives of those LGB&T people who are part of the 2 billion who live in Commonwealth countries.