The Commonwealth is working on LGBT issues

ldv-logoBy | Fri 4th December 2015 – 2:55 pm

Most people wouldn’t know that the large biennial Commonwealth Heads of CommonwealthGovernment Meeting (CHOGM) just took place in Malta. The Telegraph made a quip about the ‘Dictators Club’, the Daily Mail twisted some policy announcements. The Independent had bits of coverage. The Guardian, surprisingly, stuck to rewording Government press releases.

Tim Farron also intervened on the subject of LGBT rights. Paraphrasing: he said that the Government should be raising LGBT rights as an issue using its position of strength in the Commonwealth. This statement got coverage – the point was well landed! But when you think for a moment, you realise the intervention was wrong.

LGBT rights were actually a major topic. The Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Civil Society part of CHOGM, made part of its post-Forum Declaration on LGBT rights. The Commonwealth Secretary General reprimand to leaders in his pre-CHOGM speech, and a quick check of Hansard, shows that Baroness Verma announced weeks ago she would chair a CHOGM discussion on LGBT rights.

Admittedly LGBT rights aren’t mentioned in the CHOGM communique or Leaders Statement, but that’s not surprising. The Commonwealth uses a strict consensus mechanism. Instead of occupying a position of strength, as Tim Farron suggests, Britain is just one of 53 members. Our entire policy platform can be vetoed by Tuvalu if that government wishes. There’s no qualified voting based on size and no Security Council permanent seat. The Commonwealth is what many Liberal Democrats campaign for elsewhere: a respectful, rules-based international institution where vulnerable states leverage the same influence as ‘big’ powers. In that situation, does anyone expect the states that persecute LGBT people not to veto condemnation of their behaviour?

That doesn’t mean LGBT rights weren’t raised. According to EU reviews, the UK is the most progressive European state on the subject of LGBT rights, and Cameron has used LGBT rights as part of his drive to detoxify the Toryies. In addition, the CHOGM was hosted by another state and leader with a strong LGBT record. And even if one thinks Prime Ministers Cameron and Muscat wouldn’t raise LGBT rights: it’s hard to imagine Canadian PM Justin Trudeau not fighting that fight.

The reality is that the CHOGM takes place without the media present. The CHOGM Retreat is also totally off the record; so there’s never a record of discussions. Yet you can still piece together what happened.

First, as pointed out, LGBT rights were deliberately raised in the CHOGM margins and clearly in the foundations of some kind of Maltese strategy. Secondly, despite the consensus mechanism and de-facto vetoes, the Commonwealth appointed a new Secretary-General on a LGBT rights’ platform, so clearly the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and Maltese diplomatic services have been busy. Thirdly; the UK will host the next CHOGM in 2018. It’s inconceivable, given the British debate, that the Government would host in 2018 if its policy wasn’t to raise LGBT rights at CHOGMs.

This is not to say the Commonwealth is strong on LGBT right. Peter Tatchell is right in calling the Commonwealth a bastion of homophobia, and our Governments efforts are small steps to changing that. But our party resorted to an inaccurate sound bite and missed an opportunity to wield influence. We mistook lack of media interest for lack of progress.

We could turn that around and yet add to the debate about using the Commonwealth not just to advance LGBT rights, but also to further our wider international goals. After all, if the Toryies can provide the Commonwealth with £15 million to capitalise a disaster insurance programme that helps poor countries respond to crises more quickly, deliver a £5.6 million new development programme for the world’s smallest countries, establish a £5 million counter-extremism programme, and a youth network to prevent radicalisation; imagine what a Liberal Democrat Government could achieve.

* Dan Smith is a psuedonym. The author is known to the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He has a professional background in foreign and commonwealth affairs.

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Commonwealth Legacy Laws


Peers: The UK must do more to address legacy of Commonwealth anti-gay laws


Members of the House of Lords have urged the government to take a stronger line against the vast number of British colonial-era laws criminalising homosexuality that remain in force around the world.

The Lords today held a debate on global LGBT rights, amid a worsening situation for LGBT people across many parts of the world.

Many raised the question of British colonial legacy – with archaic penal codes and laws criminalising gay sex still in effect across the vast majority of the Commonwealth.

Lib Dem peer Lord Scriven, who wrote for PinkNews earlier today, told the Lords chamber: “Out of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, where we should have much more influence on this issue than we do, 42 criminalise same-sex relationships.

“Two in particular—Brunei and a state in northern Nigeria—have the death penalty for same-sex relationships.

“What pressure are we putting on Nigeria and Brunei, and other countries outside the Commonwealth, that have the death penalty? That death penalty is for one thing—loving the person whom you naturally love. What action will be taken against those countries?”

Lord Fowler, Thatcher’s former Health Minister, said: “75 countries around the world have criminal laws against homosexuality. Forty out of the 53 members of the Commonwealth criminalise same-sex relationships; 90% of Commonwealth citizens live under such a law.

“[Progress in the UK] gives us an opportunity to try to change the climate of opinion, here and overseas. It gives us that opportunity because we are often blamed for introducing the anti-gay laws in the first place, apparently without anyone understanding that the position here has radically changed.”

Lord Smith of Finsbury – who was Labour’s first openly gay British MP before elevation to the Lords, said: “40 of its 53 countries discriminate in legislation against homosexuality… [and in a] peculiar kind of way we are responsible for that.

“These are frequently relics of colonial laws that were imposed by Britain. There is an ultimate perversity in all this because many Commonwealth countries claim that homosexuality and liberal attitudes to it are a colonial imposition on them, whereas in fact it is the laws discriminating against homosexuality that are the colonial imposition.

“We have something of a special responsibility to make our voice heard around the world on this issue.”

Lib Dem peer Baroness Barker also raised Commonwealth issues – suggesting that LGBT issues are put on the table ahead of  November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta.




The commonwealth as we now recognise it, was formed in 1949, and is acknowledged as being one of the oldest political association of states.

Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation. The last two countries to join The Commonwealth – Rwanda and Mozambique – have no historical ties to the British Empire. 

The report ‘International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia‘ states that …Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Commonwealth citizens remain victims of stigma and discrimination in many of our communities…

Further reading:




Gay rights should be centre of UK’s relations with Commonwealth

Former Foreign Secretary says Britain must use its influence with Commonwealth to end ‘shocking’ anti-gay laws


By John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the city's 'unique constitutional framework has worked well'Britain must make defending the rights of gay and lesbian people a key plank of its relations with other Commonwealth countries, the former Foreign Secretary William Hague has insisted.
He said it was “shocking” that homosexuality is still illegal many countries with historic ties to the UK and argued that Britain must use what influence it has to press for change.
His comments came as he addressed a reception in Parliament at which the annual PinkNews awards were presented.
Mr Hague, who is leaving the Commons at the next election, said he was proud of Britain’s record on the issue during his four years as Foreign Secretary including putting pressure on countries such as Uganda over draconian new anti-homosexuality laws.
But he said more must be done and accused countries which ban homosexual acts of breaking international law.
“While we are making progress in Britain and elsewhere, the situation in many countries in the world is not only difficult, it is actually worsening,” he said.
“It is completely incompatible with international human rights laws to make illegal consenting same-sex relations and to deny rights to people on the basis of their sexuality.”
Homosexual acts are classed as a criminal offence in around 80 countries and territories around the world including many former British colonies.
“One of my last acts as Foreign Secretary was to write to the Commonwealth Secretary General urging him to use his position to urge member states to live up to their responsibilities to promote the rights of their LGBT citizens,” he said.
“It is shocking that homosexuality is still illegal in so many member states and it must be an important part of our relations with those countries to persuade them to do better.”
Mr Hague presented a “peer of the year” award to Lord Fowler, who served as Health Secretary under Margaret Thatcher for his work combating HIV and Aids.
Speaking at a dinner following the awards, a serving Church of England bishop said he was “ashamed” of the church’s record on gay rights.
The Rt Rev Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham said the world would be a better place if Christians spent less time obsessing about the “minutiae of the Book of Leviticus”, which contains passages condemning homosexuality.
Speaking as he prepared to say grace before the meal, he told guests: “I want to say how honoured and privileged I felt to be here tonight knowing that the institution that I represent has not got a glorious record in terms of its dealings with its own LGBT people and the community at large.
“I am ashamed and I need to say that.”
Quoting a passage from the book of Micah, he added: “Doing justice, loving mercy walking humbly with God – if it was about that rather than some of the minutiae of the Book of Leviticus, perhaps the world would be a better place.
“And I look forward to a day when frankly the institution I represent, the Church of England, would stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.”
He added: “Take it from me, the day will come when I promise that faith communities in this country will be very much more part of the solution than the problem.”
Benjamin Cohen, publisher of PinkNews said: “We were delighted when William Hague offered to use the PinkNews Awards to make his first major speech on gay rights.
“The Foreign Office under his leadership radically altered its approach to LGBT issues placing gay rights at the heart of its human rights agenda.
“Hague is a perfect example of a politician on a journey when it comes to gay rights – from the party leader who opposed the repeal of Section 28, to one of the proud sponsors of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act.”
“The bishop spoke with honesty and from the heart, revealing the shame that he feels for the way that the Church of England has dealt with the issue of homosexuality.
“We look forward to the day when the bishop’s views are not a rarity in the world’s great religions and instead before part of the mainstream reality.”