By Dan Smith | Fri 4th December 2015 – 2:55 pm
Most people wouldn’t know that the large biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government 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.