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The Commonwealth can play a role in the worldwide struggle for LGBTI human rights

On Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18, academic and activist speakers from a range of national contexts came together in Glasgow for a groundbreaking conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender…

The Commonwealth is not quite the hoped for beacon of tolerance. EPA

On Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18, academic and activist speakers from a range of national contexts came together in Glasgow for a groundbreaking conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights in the Commonwealth. This took place in the context of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.

The conference saw collaboration between activists and academics, initiating an engagement with the Commonwealth that aims to be sensitive to post-colonial politics. In this spirit, we need to come to a more realistic recognition of the value of claiming LGBTI human rights in the Commonwealth, as occurred in the significant conference statement. We’ll turn to it shortly, but first a few words on the situation as it stands.

A history lacking human rights

The modern Commonwealth emerged from the British Empire in 1949, but it only moved to affirm human rights more recently. The 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles affirmed “equal rights”, but only with respect to specific inequalities, like racism. Only with the the Charter of the Commonwealth in 2013 did human rights became a more entrenched feature of the organisation.

The question we now face is whether the Commonwealth can and should be used to work internationally for human rights including LGBTI people’s human rights. The Commonwealth could be considered to provide one institutional framework for international campaigning as attention to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex experience grows. But given the existence of the United Nations and various regional human rights mechanisms, and given the Commonwealth’s colonial baggage, using the Commonwealth for these purposes could be seen to be risky.

The power relations associated with colonialism do present a particular challenge for the modern Commonwealth in this regard. As the people of formerly colonised nations correctly argue, the UK’s support for the neo-liberal global economic system has done little to further their economic and social rights – such as the rights to work, to fair wages, to healthy living conditions or to exploit indigenous resources (as recognised by the UN). So people in wealthy states can hardly blame them for being sceptical about the selective emphasis on particular human rights but not on others.

Peter Tatchell: risking more division sjgibbs80/Flickr, CC BY

In 2011 activist Peter Tatchell helped to persuade UK prime minister David Cameron to threaten to withdraw development aid from states which did not observe human rights for LGBTI people. Cameron subsequently moved away from this position after facing criticism, however. Tatchell continued this approach last week at the helm of a protest at Downing Street, calling on Cameron to speak out against homophobia and transphobia in the Commonwealth ahead of the games – at the same time as Cameron was re-shuffling his Cabinet with the apparent intention of exiting the European Convention on Human Rights. This approach focused on seeking Tory rather than southern state allies seems unlikely to disrupt the sense of colonial division within the Commonwealth, particularly in Africa.

Worsening oppression

There is certainly a worsening oppression of LGBTI people in a number of states. The passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 in Uganda not only extended the penalty of life imprisonment for same-sex sexual acts, but also criminalised all forms of civil movements relating to same-sex sexual relations, with impacts on transgender people. This bill represents increasingly severe criminalisation within the Commonwealth.

Ugandans celebrating the introduction of anti-gay laws this year EPA

We have also seen a worsening situation in Nigeria. While areas in the north have imposed the death penalty on homosexuals under sharia laws for some time, the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2013 has prohibited civil society activity by many LGBTI non-governmental organisations. Meanwhile in India, a Supreme Court ruling last December reaffirmed section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits “unnatural offences”.

Less stick, more carrot

In recent years, radical academics have been keen to develop what US-based theorist Jasbir Puar calls a critique of homonationalisms. This refers to countries such as the Netherlands and the UK, which affirm western lesbian and gay identities and associated human rights, while excluding certain racialised and religiously defined groups, notably Muslims. In this context, it might be argued that the Commonwealth poses the risk of “homo-internationalism”.

But even if that concern is combined with the issues around the Commonwealth’s colonial baggage, that doesn’t necessarily mean the organisation should avoid LGBTI rights altogether. Despite the obvious negatives of the imperial experience, it did leave the Commonwealth with some potential for cross-cultural understanding. For instance the shared English language is a means of communication, despite the violence used to achieve linguistic domination. We certainly need to maintain a critical view of the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth. Yet in the context of worsening oppressions, ignoring the Commonwealth’s potential for claiming human rights related to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status is a luxury that cannot be afforded.

Unlikely bedfellows: bring on her madge! Wikimedia

Last year, I spoke on a panel with the UK parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development, Lynne Featherstone. I suggested the need to bring formerly colonised voices into prominence in this debate, and disrupt perceptions of a divide within the Commonwealth. Specifically I recommended that the UK government should draw attention to the Bahamas, which decriminalised homosexuality in 1991.

Careful British diplomatic work, perhaps including some carrots and exchanges, is needed to build visible alliances for human rights with southern states in the Commonwealth. Of course we must condemn human rights abuses in states like Uganda, but this will only be effective if we also use other strategies that detract from the sense of colonisers on one side and the colonised on the other.

As part of this, international LGBTI activists need to show that they understand colonialism and the structured social and economic inequalities that it left behind. We in the UK have to listen carefully to voices from the front line, like Frank Mugisha from Sexual Minorities Uganda, and develop collaborative ways forward.

This is the approach embodied in the groundbreaking statement that came out of the “LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth Conference” at the weekend. First and foremost, participants: “Declare the historical responsibility of the British Empire for the criminalisation of same-sex sexual behaviour and relationships; and call for the repeal of all British colonial laws which criminalise same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults.”

Next they: “Affirm that human rights on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status […] are to be claimed together with human rights related to other forms of discrimination such as in relation to racism and religion.”

If this explicitly post-colonial and intersectional approach is adopted and foregrounded by all parties in campaigning to follow, a new transnational politics of LGBTI human rights might help to reinvent the Commonwealth itself.