Comment: Upholding LGBTI rights globally

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Homosexuality is still illegal in almost 80% of Commonwealth states compared with only 25% of countries outside of the Commonwealth. It's time to join the voices of LGBTI activists around the world in their struggle for justice, writes Douglas Pretsell and Doug Pollard.

At CHOGM in Perth in 2011, well-meaning words from the rich “white” countries of the Commonwealth in support of LGBTI rights drew a storm of protest. Accusations were made that speaking on behalf of others in this way was a form of neocolonialism.

Reaction was particularly strong in Africa, where sensitivities to the abuses of the colonial period are acute. There was a noticeable backlash with an increase in reports of arrests and intimidation of activists, new antigay laws introduced in Nigeria and Cameroon. It's even alleged that The Gambia left the Commonwealth in part due to pressure over its woeful LGBTI rights record.

That does not mean we should stay silent over the fact that almost 80% of Commonwealth countries criminalise and brutalise people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (in stark contrast to the 25% of non-commonwealth countries that do so). We cannot just sit on our hands, silently, helplessly watching the persecution. Instead, we can listen to the voices of LGBTI Commonwealth citizens suffering under these unjust laws, and amplify them across the world.

Last time, the criticisms were made by “white” nations from the global “West” without first listening to, consulting with or giving voice to the many brave LGBTI men and women across the Commonwealth struggling for law reform and their rights. That allowed the global “South” and “East” to paint homosexuality as a “Western import”, unheard of in their own nations.

Related: Push for gay and lesbian law reform in Asia Pacific

This time round we in the West have listened and learned, working together with the superb activists advancing LGBTI rights in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean to amplify their voices. The result is the “Speaking Out” report, which we hope will be a clarion call to tackle state sponsored homophobia in the Commonwealth of Nations in 2013.

Through assessments of the legal status quo, reviews of recent developments, but most importantly, through the fascinating, poignant and sometimes downright horrifying accounts of the real lives of LGBTI people in Commonwealth countries, a picture emerges of the dreadful impact of these anti-LGBTI laws. Even where they are not enforced, their very existence legitimizes blackmail, prejudice, suppression and violence.

As damning as the reports conclusions are, there are some positive signs. India, Vanuatu and Fiji have in recent years repealed their anti-sodomy laws. Others, like Malawi, Jamaica, Nauru and Trinidad & Tobago have said they will look to reform theirs in coming years. In Singapore and in Belize, judicial reviews are currently being undertaken by the courts.

This is not the time to stay silent, or retreat. We owe it to the staggering bravery of LGBTI activists in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Cameroon to broadcast their struggle for justice as widely, and amplify their voices as loudly as we can.

Douglas Pretsell and Doug Pollard are board members of the Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation.

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