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UPDATE: Put queer rights on Commonwealth agenda: Tatchell

Urges Sharma to repeat pro-gay rights stance to government heads Oct 28

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell says the Commonwealth Secretariat has begun to shift its ground on queer rights, noting the Secretary General's statement in The Star newspaper in Nairobi that homophobia is incompatible with Commonwealth values. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Tatchell

Oct 26, 12:45pm

 

Kamalesh Sharma’s reiteration of his commitment to gay rights at the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) Oct 25, ahead of this weekend’s leaders’ summit, is a significant but largely symbolic breakthrough, UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell says.

“This has never happened before,” Tatchell told Xtra on Oct 26. In fact he’s hoping the Secretary-General does an encore at the Oct 28 opening of the summit in the presence of presidents and prime ministers. “That’s something he can do, regardless of what many of the member states may wish,” Tatchell notes. “I think a lot of countries are going to find it difficult – but not impossible – to take on the Secretary-General by openly rebelling against his support for LGBT rights.”
 

There’s very little doubt there’ll be discussion about queer issues at the summit, Tatchell adds. What’s going to be much more difficult, he says, is getting any agreement from member states. “The fact that we’ve got big hitters like Britain, Australia and Canada pushing for LGBT rights is important, but we desperately need the voices of the more sympathetic countries in the global South such as South Africa, Rwanda and India,” he contends.
 

In the midst of the positive noises emanating from some Commonwealth leaders, Uganda reintroduced the so-called “Kill the gays” bill in the country’s parliament on Oct 25. The bill, first introduced in 2009, is the work of MP David Bahati. Time ran out on the globally panned bill in the last parliament in May and there had been ongoing speculation about the chances of its resurrection.
 

Tatchell says explicit condemnation of this latest move by the East African country at the Perth summit “will be politically difficult” – much as he would like to see homophobic states condemned.
 

He says getting a commitment for decriminalization on human rights grounds is not likely. As things stand, there is still “incredible resistance” from the majority of Commonwealth states, Tatchell says, but quickly adds that “this is definitely the most promising CHOGM ever for LGBT human rights.”
 

Tatchell says he’s hoping for some commitment in the final communiqué to either decriminalizing or not prosecuting same-sex relations in the name of public health and HIV prevention. If there is rejection of the call for decriminalization, he says it’s very important for the Commonwealth’s pro-gay rights bloc to keep pushing the issue in the institution’s events and forums.
 

“I’ve long argued that the approach most likely to succeed is not condemnation – even though it is much deserved – but positive reinforcement by highlighting those Commonwealth countries who have taken a lead.” Apart from South Africa, India, Rwanda, he points to Fiji, which decriminalized homosexuality in 2010.

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Oct 25, 9:25am

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has come out in support of queer rights at the Oct 25 opening ceremony of the institution’s People’s Forum (CPF) in Perth, UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell reports.

“We recall the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, which includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding. This means we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity,” Sharma said in remarks just days before the start of the Commonwealth heads of government (CHOGM) meeting. The meeting begins Oct 28.
 
“Discrimination and criminalization on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with our values, and I have had occasion to refer to this in the context of our law-related conferences,” Sharma told CPF delegates.

On Oct 20, Tatchell indicated that Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is set to call for an end to laws that criminalize homosexuality at the CHOGM meeting. As host of the meeting, Rudd has “significant influence over the Commonwealth summit’s deliberations,” Tatchell notes.

“Australia encourages all countries to decriminalise homosexuality by removing all laws imposing criminal penalties for homosexual conduct. Mr Rudd will be raising these matters with Commonwealth foreign ministers at CHOGM,” according to an Oct 19 report in the Sydney Star Observer, quoting a spokesperson for Rudd.

Xtra’s continued attempts to reach Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to find out if Canada supports inclusion of decriminalization on the Commonwealth heads meeting agenda have been in vain.

But on Oct 21, Baird told the House of Commons that Canada intends to broach the issue at CHOGM. “The rights of gays and lesbians are tremendously important. It is completely unacceptable that homosexuality continues to be criminalized in a majority of Commonwealth countries, and we will certainly take that issue to the summit,” he said.

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A prominent UK gay rights activist is pressuring Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) to include queer rights, including the decriminalization of homosexuality, on the agenda of their meeting in Perth, Australia, at the end of October.

Peter Tatchell is also pushing Commonwealth heads to discuss legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, enforcement of legislation protecting queers from hate crimes and threats, and consultation with queer organizations.

For several weeks, Tatchell has been pressing various government officials in the UK, Australia and Canada, along with Commonwealth higher-ups, to ensure those items are part of the Oct 28 to 30 meeting, but he has yet to receive a thumbs up or down regarding his appeal.

Since Britain is responsible for so many of the laws that criminalize homosexuality throughout the Commonwealth, he points out, the UK foreign minister has “special responsibility” to push for such inclusion. More than 40 out of some 54 Commonwealth countries still criminalize homosexuality, Tatchell notes.

Tatchell also emailed Canada’ s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, on Sept 5, asking him to “urge Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to include LGBT rights on the CHOGM agenda.” Several weeks later, he has received no response to his appeal.

Xtra’s several attempts to reach Baird were unsuccessful up to press time, despite repeated email assurances that foreign affairs communications officers were working on our request for comment.

Tatchell’s attempt to have similar issues included on the agenda of the last CHOGM meeting, held in Port of Spain, Trinidad, fell on deaf ears, but Tatchell says the Commonwealth Secretariat has begun to “shift its ground” this year. He says he noticed the shift following a piece he wrote in The Guardian newspaper in London, criticizing the criminalization of homosexuality in most Commonwealth countries, the frequent homophobic witch-hunts and the failure of the Commonwealth secretary-general to speak out in defence of queer rights.

“This prompted the secretary- general, Kamalesh Sharma, to write an article where he acknowledged clearly for the first time that homophobia was incompatible with Commonwealth values,” Tatchell believes. In that May 2011 piece, published in The Star newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya, Sharma reminds heads of member countries that they reiterated their commitment to human rights “for all without discrimination on any grounds” in the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles.

“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,” Sharma writes. “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,” he adds.

Tatchell notes that Sharma also spoke out against homophobia at the Commonwealth Law Ministers conference in July at the urging of queer activists who’ve been meeting with the Commonwealth’s human rights unit for the last two years. “To his surprise, the usual outraged responses didn’t materialize,” Tatchell says. That’s progress, when queer rights aren’t being denounced in a Commonwealth forum, he adds.

“Commonwealth leaders will have a chance to discuss and exchange frank views on many issues of interest to member states,” says the Commonwealth’s acting deputy director of communications, Geraldine Goh, when asked if Sharma intends to follow up on his May and July statements during the Perth meeting. “The agenda will be finalized by the leaders at the outset of their meeting,” she added.

Meanwhile, Egale Canada has sent a letter dated Oct 4 to Peter Garrett, Australia’s school education, early childhood and youth minister, asking how queer “themes of significance” will be addressed at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF) in Fremantle, Australia.

“Youth are often both the aggressors and victims of hate crimes involving sexual orientation and gender identity, and are, in many instances, the target of state-sanctioned violence,” Egale’s executive director Helen Kennedy writes. “It is by no means radical to call for the Commonwealth Youth Forum delegates to directly address issues of LGBTQ safety and health around the world,” she concludes. Kennedy’s letter is copied to Baird.