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Canada’s “commitment” to queer rights abroad

I got an email from a reader this morning, who forwarded on to me a question he sent to the Prime Minister around the issue of those two gay men in Malawi who were imprisoned, and the response he received. While the situation has since been resolved (they were released thanks to international pressure, but the pair have since broken up). With his permission, I’m reposting the exchange here.

Dear Prime Minister Harper,

I am writing to urge you to rescind your invitation to Bingu wa Mutharika, President of Malawi, to attend the G20 Toronto Summit.

Canada should not be welcoming the leader of any country that treats homosexuality as a criminal offence.

The recent conviction of Malawian gay couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza for publicly expressing their engagement to each other is not acceptable. I agree with Amnesty International that “being in a relationship should not be a crime” and “no one should be arrested and detained solely on the the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."

As you are aware, Monday was International Day Against Homophobia. There is no better time than this week to make it clear to the world that Canada does not condone state-sanctioned homophobia and will not do business with the leaders of nations that do.

I look forward to your response on this matter.

And the response, which you will note came from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and not the PMO:

The Office of the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, has forwarded to me your email of May 19, 2010, regarding gay rights in the Republic of Malawi and the sentencing of Mr. Steven Monjeza and Mr. Tiwonge Chimbalanga to 14 years of hard labour. I regret the delay in replying to you.

The promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of Canada’s foreign policy. In all circumstances, Canada stands up for human rights and takes principled positions on important issues to promote freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

While Canada welcomes their pardoning on May 29, 2010, by His Excellency Bingu wa Mutharika, President of Malawi, Canada will continue to speak out against human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We will also continue to raise this issue when States, which criminalize homosexuality appear before the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review. For example, at the December 2009 session of the Human Rights Council, Canada intervened during the reviews of Brunei Darussalam, Eritrea, and Bhutan, recommending that each country decriminalize same-sex activity between consenting adults.

As well, Canada is one of the 67 countries that endorsed the December 2008 Statement on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the UN, reaffirming that the principle of non-discrimination “requires that human rights apply equally to every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Indeed, Canada will continue to encourage its partners to respect and promote human rights, including non-discriminatory and equal protection of the law without distinction of any kind, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thank you for taking the time to write.


The Honourable Lawrence Cannon, P.C., M.P.

Minister of Foreign Affairs

Note that Cannon didn’t actually address the issue of rescinding the invitation for the President of Malawi, which was something that had been discussed at the time. Instead, he gave bland assertions that Canada speaks out against human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. What’s interesting is that for all their “commitment” to queer rights abroad, their track record at home is not exactly consistent. After all, this is the government that scrubbed references to gay rights and same-sex marriage from their citizenship guide, that has turned a blind eye to the question of veterans discharged from the military for their sexual orientation pre-1992, and which is currently opposing Bill Siksay’s Private Member’s Bill on trans rights, which enshrines protection for gender identity and gender expression.

Sure, it’s one thing to encourage states to decriminalise same-sex activity between consenting adults, but here at home, we don’t yet have an equal age of consent. They also operate on this notion that being queer is something that is a private matter for behind the bedroom door – best not seen in public (so let’s not fund Pride celebrations). And while I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of international diplomacy, note that Harper only ever committed to raising the issue of queer rights in private, both with the president of Malawi, and the President of Uganda on the anti-homosexuality bill in that country. Who knows what actually gets said behind closed doors? Suffice to say, that Cannon’s words and his government’s actions have a fairly wide gulf between them.

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