Canadian gays and lesbians are anxiously waiting to see whether Canada will stand with Britain, Australia and other countries to call for an end to the criminalization of homosexuality at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, from Oct 28 to 30.
On Oct 21, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the House of Commons that Canada will speak out against homophobia at the event, which will include leaders from 41 countries where homosexuality is still illegal.
“The rights of gays and lesbians are tremendously important,” Baird said. “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.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will be attending the Perth event, spoke out against a Ugandan anti-gay bill in 2009 at the Commonwealth leaders meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.
However, some Canadian activists are wondering if Harper will follow through this time.
“Is he doing that in consultation with other groups on the ground, or is he doing that in isolation?” asks Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada. “I’d like to know how and when and where he’s doing it.
“Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that this is not a good thing – absolutely, but show me the meat,” Kennedy says. “What are the details attached to a Commonwealth charter? Who’s at the table? Who’s going to discuss it, what’s going to be discussed and how is it going to be implemented? There’s a ton of questions that need to be addressed. It’s not good enough to say yes, we’re going to bring it up and talk about it.”
NDP MP Randall Garrison also welcomes the news but is waiting to see how the government will follow through.
“Canada needs to take a leadership role in the Commonwealth,” Garrison says. “If the Commonwealth is going to survive, it has to be relevant.”
Garrison says the Commonwealth has a questionable record when it comes to queer rights, especially considering 41 of 54 countries within the Commonwealth still criminalize homosexuality.
Liberal Party interim leader Bob Rae concurs.
“I hope that Canada maintains a leadership position and we’re clear on the fact that the decriminalization of homosexual activity, at the very minimum, would be a basis from which to proceed, to say look, you can’t lock people up for being who they are,” Rae says.
A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson says leaders will put forward substantial proposals at the meeting, including a Commonwealth charter that would include the rights of gays and lesbians.
The spokesperson points to Canada’s cosponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity earlier this year, as well as Harper’s discussion with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the Trinidad and Tobago Commonwealth meeting in 2009.
The Eminent Persons Group was launched at the 2009 meeting with the goal of enabling the Commonwealth to better cooperate on human rights issues, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in order to fight HIV/AIDS.
“Members of the Eminent Persons Group have already been talking about that aspect of the report, including Michael Kirby, who is a former Supreme Court judge in Australia, and he’s already made public statements. You really can’t fight HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, unless you decriminalize homosexuality,” Garrison says.
“The Eminent Persons report is more broadly cast on human rights but is also very specific on the decriminalization of homosexuality,” Garrison says. “If we keep both focuses, if you like, the broad Commonwealth needs to have institutions to deal with human rights, and the specific, that we need to move on this issue. Then I’ll be quite happy.”
Commonwealth nations where homosexuality is illegal:
Antigua and Barbuda
Papua New Guinea
St Kitts and Nevis
St Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
United Republic of Tanzania
Commonwealth nations where it is non-specified:
Commonwealth nations where homosexuality is legal: