LGBTI issues look set to be front-and-centre at this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, writes Simon Copland.
Simon Copland

24 Nov 2015 - 9:12 AM  UPDATED 24 Nov 2015 - 1:47 PM

At the end of November, the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held in Malta. For the first time in CHOGM’s history, LGBTI issues look set to be front-and-centre of this meeting’s agenda.

CHOGM represents a diverse range of countries from around the world, including some of the most progressive and conservative states when it comes to LGBTI rights. Whilst nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Bahamas and Australia will all be represented, so will a number of countries that still criminalise homosexuality.

In the lead up to the meeting, British Prime Minister David Cameron has already faced pressure to raise India’s re-criminalisation of homosexuality with his counterpart Narendra Modi. The meeting is also likely to put some focus on the African nations like Nigeria and Uganda, which have seen numerous moves to strengthen anti-homosexual legislation in recent years. A bit closer to home, legislation in Papua New Guinea, which provides up to 14 years imprisonment for homosexuals, is likely to be under scrutiny.

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These issues are going to be discussed in a formal manner before CHOGM for the first time at this year’s meeting. Dr. Felicity Daly, who is the executive director at the UK’s Kaleidoscope Trust, explained that they, along with other LGBTI organisations from around the Commonwealth working through the Commonwealth Equality Network, have organised a number of activities surrounding this year’s meeting. This includes two formal sessions in the people’s forum, as well as sending LGBTI delegates to the women’s and youth forums.

The aim of these sessions is to produce communiques which will put more attention on LGBTI rights during the main meeting. This will hopefully influence the Head’s of Government meeting, which may include statements regarding the need for greater progress on LGBTI rights from some Commonwealth governments. Daly described that while they do not expect the CHOGM Head’s of Government communique to make any strong statements it could however set a policy outcome:

“What we would really like to see as a technical outcome is that the Commonwealth secretariat is empowered to put into its work program a stream of work that would enable them to support any country that wants to start to consider what it would take to change their policies.”

Such an outcome would be an important first step giving the Commonwealth Secretariat the capacity to work with governments seeking to replace discriminatory legislation. This may sound extremely weak to some people. In the past, CHOGM has acted swiftly when it comes to human rights abuses, in particular through their suspension of Zimbabwe in 2003. Why not call for the same for countries with such strong anti-homosexual legislation?

A strong statement on LGBTI people from British Prime Minister David Cameron at the 2011 CHOGM received such a poor reaction from both opposing states as well as LGBTI movements in those countries.

The reason is that such moves would likely make the problem much worse before it got better. Daly, for example, described how a strong statement on LGBTI people from British Prime Minister David Cameron at the 2011 CHOGM received such a poor reaction from both opposing states as well as LGBTI movements in those countries that it took the debate backwards instead of advancing it.

This is something we should not be surprised by. In his book The End of the Homosexual, Dennis Altman describes how much of this anti-gay legislation is framed as a reaction to “importation of Western values”. As he describes:

“The assertion of ‘Asian’ of ‘African’ values as a counter to what is perceived as imported  western individualistic values is a growing part of nationalist ideologies in a number of  countries, and often includes claims that homosexuality is a ‘Western import’, despite  evidence of well established pre-colonial homosexual cultures and practices.” (pg. 180)

We’ve seen this reality in particular with recent Russian anti-homosexuality legislation, with the Russian government often arguing recent legislation was required to protect the nation from the evils of Western values. Anti-homosexuality legislation represents a reaction against Western culture; a fear of a form of neocolonialism. Strong reactions from Western states therefore can actually bolster anti-gay arguments rather than challenge them.

That is why groups like the Kaleidoscope Trust are taking a much softer approach, incorporating behind-the-scenes discussions with the bolstering of local activists who are willing to speak our for LGBTI rights. Daly argued that through all their work they work “to ensure it’s lead from Southern civil society, particularly the Commonwealth Equality Network, to encourage Southern leadership.”

While it may not create headlines this year’s CHOGM may present an important step in this leadership, and in turn in eliminating anti-queer legislation around the world.