4 min

Can Trudeau breathe life into LGBT rights in the Commonwealth?

Forty-one Commonwealth countries still criminalize homosexuality

With a series of major international conferences scheduled over the coming weeks — the G20, APEC and UN meetings — speculation is heavy that new prime minister Justin Trudeau will use the global spotlight to underscore some of the big differences between himself and his predecessor: dovish on the Middle East, cooperative on climate change, and in favour of freer trade and growth (well, two out of three ain’t bad).

But an important opportunity for Canada to promote global LGBT human rights is also coming up: the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta, Nov 27–29, 2015. Trudeau should seize this opportunity to launch a realistic plan to decriminalize LGBT people in the 41 Commonwealth states that still maintain laws against homosexuality.

Laws criminalizing queer people — primarily men who have sex with men, but also in some cases women who have sex with women, cross-dressers, and trans people — were a legacy left by British colonists in the penal codes they drafted for their far-flung colonies. In fact, the vast majority of states that criminalize homosexuality today are former British colonies and Commonwealth members.   

Canada is one of a relative handful of former British colonies that has decriminalized homosexuality and prides itself as a leader on human rights law globally.

While the Commonwealth holds the promotion of democracy and liberty as core goals, member states have bristled at criticism of their human rights records and at calls to decriminalize queer people – most recently at the Sydney conference in 2011, where members shelved a report they’d commissioned calling on the Commonwealth to take a more active role in promoting human rights.

Bellicose posturing on the part of certain Western leaders — particularly the UK’s David Cameron, who threatened to cut off development aid to countries that persecuted queer people — likely wasn’t helpful in wooing allies. Commonwealth members are understandably defensive about white people coming around and telling them how to run their countries.

Under Harper, Canada managed to make small strides on promoting LGBT rights in the Commonwealth  — Harper’s personal conversation with Ugandan President Museveni at the 2009 summit may have helped persuade him to veto that country’s first anti-homosexuality bill (alas, it would pass another a couple years later). And former foreign minister Lawrence Cannon intervened after a Malawian couple were sentenced to 14 years for gay sex, leading to the Malawian government suspending enforcement of the sodomy law. That country is now debating repealing it altogether.

Unfortunately, the Harper government more frequently used LGBT rights as a wedge issue to stick a thumb in the eye of enemies like Russia and Iran, and to distract its suburban base from its own poor human rights record. Harper’s transparent motives likely didn’t help to convince foreign governments to change their laws.

It’s unrealistic and unwise to expect that Canada can force any other country to change its laws. But with better diplomacy, Canada may influence our Commonwealth allies to make the right decisions on human rights. If the Liberal government under Trudeau takes international LGBT human rights seriously, then I humbly propose this five-point plan to win over more states:

1) Address Canada’s own sodomy laws

When Canada criticizes our Commonwealth allies for not repealing old colonial sodomy laws, we’re throwing bricks in a glass house. While Pierre Trudeau did away with the outright ban on sodomy, we still maintain a differential age of consent, and threesomes and group sex involving sodomy are illegal here too. Canada should strike down these laws, end gay blood discrimination and address gaps in human rights legislation for trans people to avoid being hypocrites.

2) Emphasize dialogue and acknowledge our human rights gaps

If we expect to influence our allies, we should make clear that we respect their input on our human rights records as well — yes, even when we’re being criticized by other human rights abusing countries. In particular, Canada should address other countries’ concerns about Canada’s Indigenous people and poverty.

3) Support the grassroots

All the diplomacy in the world isn’t going to convince a leader to repeal a law that enjoys broad popular support, as anti-homosexuality laws do in many countries. Canada is already supporting LGBT awareness campaigns in countries around the world, and should step up its involvement to help activists build support for their causes. Moreover, Canadian diplomats should take cues from local activists on what the needs are in each country, and whether each country is ready for a “push” on decriminalization.

4) Offer technical assistance

Surprising though it may seem, repealing a law is not as simple as just passing a vote in Parliament. Governments who want to strike a “buggery” or “sex against nature” law may need legal assistance to replace it so that they don’t accidentally legalize bestiality. They may also need advice on revising other statutes relating to prostitution, sexual assault and child abuse so as not to create other accidental gaps in legislation. There may also be other laws that discriminate against queer people that need to be revised. And of course, in democracies, new laws tend to have to go through public consultations and debates. All of this costs money that some smaller and poorer countries — particularly microstates in the Caribbean and Pacific — are reluctant to spend. Canada should direct foreign aid flows to help countries carry out updates of their laws to advance human rights, and sponsor NGOs that can do legal consultations in these countries.

5) Demonstrate that it’s not just about gay sex

A country choosing to decriminalize homosexuality should be the beginning of a dialogue on human rights, not its endpoint. We should reward countries that adopt basic human rights standards for queer people by engaging with them more deeply on human rights issues that matter to them. Increased financial and technical assistance to help countries develop their human rights infrastructure (commissions, tribunals, education campaigns) especially to protect women, the elderly, the disabled and minority groups could be an effective carrot for building government support.

Trudeau’s “sunny ways” campaign through the summer carried him to the prime minister’s office. It’ll be interesting to see whether those tactics can provide effective leadership on global human rights.