End the Commonwealth's Silence on Homophobia

IGLHRC believes that a vital part of our mission is supporting the work of activist organizations and allies by disseminating important information on human rights issues affecting LGBT communities worldwide. To this end we are posting this article from AIDS-Free World.

January 6, 2011

Mr. Kamalesh Sharma
Commonwealth Secretariat
Marlborough House, Pall Mall
London SW1Y 5HX
United Kingdom

Dear Secretary-General:

At this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, we urge you to put the scourge of homophobia that continues to haunt the Commonwealth high on the agenda. It must have a formal debate in plenary session.

During the last CHOGM gathering in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 2009, many non-governmental organizations in attendance called for attention to be paid to the issue of homophobia in the Commonwealth and its deleterious impact on the spread of HIV and AIDS. Civil society recognized the imperative that homophobia be addressed within the Commonwealth because of its symbiotic relationship with HIV. It is a tragic fact, for example, that men who have sex with men have a 42 per cent HIV prevalence rate in Kenya, the highest rate among this vulnerable population in any country. It has been well documented that wherever they exist, draconian homophobic laws drive gays underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions.

There was a defiant silence on the issue of homophobia at the last CHOGM gathering, reflecting a most disheartening glimpse into the dominant prejudice that still pervades many Commonwealth states and characterizes those countries' leaders. Yet, at the close of that gathering, the Heads of Government unanimously adopted the "Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles." Article 5 of this document recalls the collective:

  • …'belief that equality and respect for protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for all without discrimination on any grounds, including the right to development, are foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies, and that these rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented electively.'
  • The strong commitments to human rights and equality enunciated in this article do not find resonance in all parts of the Commonwealth. Indeed, since the last gathering, homophobic political rhetoric and public practice have continued unabated.
  • Commonwealth countries located in the Caribbean and Africa have seen some of the most egregious breaches of the fundamental human rights of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. In 2009,police in Guyana detained eight people under Chapter 8:02 of the Laws of Guyana, section 153 (1) (xlvii) of the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, which criminalizes the "wearing of female attire by man; wearing of male attire by women." Also in that year, the principal of a fundamentalist school in Belize denied a student, Jose Garcia, access to the school because of his sexual orientation and gender identity. From Jamaica, there have been reports of sexual assaults known by the odious term 'corrective rapes' of lesbians, the murder of a cross-dresser, home invasions of gays and extortion, blackmail and violent abuse of LGBT.

In Uganda, homophobic paranoia was whipped up by an inflammatory newspaper article, which ran photographs of gays with the caption "Hang them, they are after our kids." In Ghana, while that country undergoes a constitutional reform process, self-appointed spokespersons have been attempting to limit the rights of the lesbian and gay community in order to ultimately criminalize homosexuality altogether. Without strong leadership from elected officials, these voices may succeed in codifying discrimination within the new constitution. Even in South Africa, with its constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, punitive rapes of lesbians have recently been reported and the gains made on behalf of LGBT in that country are now under threat from a resurgent wave of homophobia.

From the Caribbean to Cameroon, the Commonwealth continues to be riddled with such pointed and violent discrimination. Surely the time has come for the issue to be addressed squarely by this august body.

We acknowledge that there have been positive changes in the Commonwealth, such as the 2009 Delhi High Court ruling that overturned India's colonial law criminalizing same-sex intimacy. Further, during a United Nations vote on December 22, 2010 all the Commonwealth Caribbean countries, with the notable exception of St. Lucia, voted to support a resolution condemning extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary killings of persons based,inter alia, on their 'sexual orientation.' The Prime Ministers of Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Lucia have also called for the end to discriminatory homophobic laws, although so far failing to achieve legislative change in their own countries.

The Rwandan delegation did the Commonwealth proud at the UN resolution vote by stating that "people (of different sexual orientation) continue to be the target of murder in many of our societies, and they are more at risk than many ... other groups." And just this week, a Ugandan High Court granted an injunction against the newspaper that published the names of homosexuals under the vicious and inflammatory caption noted above.

Despite these advances, much more work remains to be done. The sad reality is that, of the 80 countries in the world with laws that continue to criminalize same-sex conduct and identity, over half are in the Commonwealth. These countries have penalties ranging from fines to death. Citing arguments about the need to protect local cultural and religious traditions, members of Parliaments around the Commonwealth including those in Ghana, Uganda and Jamaica are even seeking to strengthen and constitutionally entrench these laws on those bases. This, despite the fact that all such laws were largely colonial impositions.

Others have held fast to their discriminatory laws, such as Trinidad and Tobago, which still has legislation banning the entry of 'known' homosexuals; Malawi, which punishes gays with prison terms of up to 14 years' hard labor; and Pakistan, which imposes life imprisonment for even private acts of same-sex intimacy.

We commend the countries of the Commonwealth such as South Africa, the Bahamas and India, which through judicial and legislative means have begun the process of dismantling their colonial homophobic architecture. It is our hope that all the remaining countries will join this liberating forward march towards a more just and humane Commonwealth.

Surely it is the job of the Heads of Governments to effect a reconciliation of these divergent approaches in a way that reflects equality for all Commonwealth citizens. After all, equality is the fulcrum of the Commonwealth, as stated in its constituent document, the London Declaration.

AIDS-Free World has written to the African Union, the current Chair of the Commonwealth and the Queen to highlight our concerns. However, so pressing is the problem that we must bring it to the attention of the entire Commonwealth body in hopes that it will rise to the top of the agenda for discussion in Perth.

The Commonwealth represented a beacon of hope for many marginalized groups during the start of the HIV epidemic. Its Heads of Government were passionate in demanding that the world pay attention to the threat this epidemic posed for the vulnerable societies and economies of most Commonwealth countries. Yet HIV continues to rage within many LGBT Commonwealth populations, fueled by a palpable sense of hatred and homophobia.

We respectfully submit that it is now time for the Commonwealth's leadership once again to place its highly credible influence behind the issue of HIV prevention by calling for an end to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.


Paula Donovan, Stephen Lewis
Co-Directors, AIDS-Free World

AIDS-Free World
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cc: Heads of Government and Heads of State, Commonwealth
cc: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
cc: Professor Michel Kazatchkine, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria
cc: Mr. Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS