Why should the UK care about the rights of LGBT citizens in the Commonwealth?

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One of the main aims of the Commonwealth is to ‘improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth’.[1] This has not been the case though for LGBT Commonwealth citizens. Same-sex sexual activity remains illegal in 42 out of 53 Commonwealth states, with two states applying the death penalty, another using flogging as punishment and five others imposing life sentences.

This article will focus on the recent developments in Uganda, where legislation has been passed that demonstrates these discriminatory issues within the Commonwealth. The law recently passed allows for life imprisonment for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, and up to seven years in prison for ‘attempting to commit homosexuality’ and the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, among others.[2] However, it must not be forgotten that this is a regular feature within the Commonwealth and Uganda is simply one example out of those 42 countries.

There have been some attempts to tackle the discrimination that LGBT people face in these countries by the Commonwealth – though it remains distinctly lacking. Ben Summerskill of Stonewall described as a ‘historic step forward’ changes to the charter where it states that ‘[human rights] are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively. We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds[3]. However, this is simply not the case. The Commonwealth has failed to specifically implement a section for LGBT people, who face extreme persecution, whilst allowing religious freedom to be specifically protected. The hollowness of the charter is demonstrated by the fact that countries such as Uganda are passing ever stricter laws with little rebuke, especially from the UK, and others remain opposed to removing them. The situation is effectively summed up by Patrick Strudwick: ‘to refrain from specification is to collude with silence’.[4]

Why should we be so involved in the affairs of other countries? The main argument of the Ugandan government stems from outdated scientific arguments and the application of ‘cultural relativism’ in such situations. One Ugandan government spokesman said that the president ‘wants to sign it with the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation’.[5] This article does not have the space to discuss whether human rights are a purely ‘Western’ phenomenon or the notion of cultural relevance, but regardless of the merits of this argument, it’s not one that even Uganda sticks to and so can be rubbished on that basis alone. In the president’s own address, he cites previous British colonial law as being one of the factors that puts him in favour of such discriminatory legislation.[6] If their government is so against Western involvement, then surely the justification of such discrimination using colonial laws is a major contradiction in itself?

The UK should feel an additional moral obligation in tackling such discriminatory laws in countries where their own laws are still based upon, encouraged or justified by our colonial law. Late last year, the Indian Supreme Court reversed a High Court decision decriminalising homosexuality[7]. The legislation reinstated by the decision was Section 377, a colonial law that is 153 years old, which states that a same-sex relationship is an ‘unnatural offence’ and can be punishable by a prison sentence of 10 years. The UK, despite being historically responsible for the law, remained silent on the decision.

However, there are some examples of Commonwealth nations not being as vehemently opposed to LGBT rights. One rare example is South Africa, which was the first African country to bring in same-sex marriage in 2006. More fundamentally, in Chapter 2, Section 9 of its constitution, South Africa provides specific protection against discrimination and equality before the law on the basis of sexual orientation[8]. The price of supporting LGBT people is a small one; much smaller than the time and energy put into creating legislation, enforcing those laws and imprisoning those people. If some of these nations spent as much time focusing on the suffering of their people rather than making scapegoats of minority groups then quite a bit would be accomplished, one is to imagine.

Secretary of State John Kerry compared Uganda’s laws to that of anti-semitic laws passed by Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa[9]. President Obama described the bill himself as being ‘a step backward’ and saying it will complicate the ‘valued’ relationship between the two nations. It isn’t just powerful rhetoric either; Kerry has stated that the US may reduce or cut off aid, an amount reported at $485 million, with Kerry speaking to the president directly on the issue to continue demands to remove the laws.[10] Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway have followed suit and frozen aid to the Ugandan government too; even the World Bank has suspended a loan of $90m to Uganda.

Compare this action to Foreign Secretary William Hague’s own, rather lacklustre criticism, of being ‘saddened and disappointed’ by Uganda’s decision.[11] UK aid to Uganda has not been cut, despite threats from David Cameron last year, or even fresh threats made in the light of this new law. Our own government seems to care more about issues such as corruption than it does the rights of LGBT commonwealth citizens; in 2012, the UK government cut off aid to Uganda, around £100m, after the exposure of huge governmental corruption.[12] The UK must do more, in terms of rhetoric and in terms of action, if it hopes to improve the lives of these people. It has shown it can be tough on other issues, why not this one?

In addition to this, the UK can spend so much time and energy on the Commonwealth Games, which Scotland will be hosting this year, yet so little in defending fundamental rights. One objective of Glasgow 2014 is to improve the lives of children in the commonwealth through UNICEF’s programmes; other objectives of the Commonwealth include efforts to tackle HIV/AIDS. What is the point in protecting these children when some, undoubtedly, will grow up to will face the death penalty, prison, torture or die of HIV/AIDS out of fear the government will persecute them for seeking treatment, simply due to their sexual orientation? Failure to tackle this discrimination outright will lead to other positive aspects of the Commonwealth being undermined; if the UK wants to realise the goals of equality and improvement in the lives of its Commonwealth citizens it must do all it can to fight the toxic colonial legacy it has left behind in law and demonstrate its commitment by being tougher in its rhetoric and actions.


Written by Michael Higgs, Edited by Simon Renwick

[1] thecommonwealth.org/our-charter

[2] www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-26349166

[3] thecommonwealth.org/commonwealth-charter-section/human-rights

[4] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/11/queen-gay-rights-commonwealth

[5] uk.reuters.com/article/2014/02/24/uk-uganda-gaybill-idUKBREA1N05V20140224

[6] www.scribd.com/doc/208333248/President-Museveni-responds-to-Obama-on-gay-bill

[7] www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-25329065

[8] www.gov.za/documents/constitution/1996/a108-96.pdf

[9] www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/27/us-usa-uganda-kerry-idUSBREA1Q03U20140227

[10] www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/28/us-uganda-gaybill-usa-idUSBREA1R1YJ20140228

[11] www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretary-saddened-and-disappointed-by-ugandan-anti-homosexuality-law


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