Commonwealth challenge: Uganda and the Caribbean

Commonwealth challenge: Uganda and the Caribbean

Published: 28 Nov 2009

As one group has called it, this is perhaps one
of the gravest Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings to date.
Thanks to the draconian and discriminatory bill on homosexuality before
the Ugandan Parliament, the issue of discrimination towards sexual
minorities in Uganda and across the Caribbean has gained an inordinate
amount of visibility.

it would appear the time is right to address these issues. The
Commonwealth itself, comprised of 53 countries, is the largest grouping
of developing countries, of which only 13 of its members have
legislative measures to protect their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and
trans- gender) citizens from homophobic abuse and discrimination. This
remains an appalling and disgraceful record, and the private members
bill currently before the Ugandan Parliament is itself a testament to
the challenges of addressing issues of sexual orien- tation and gender
identity. Interestingly, this bill is also linked to another important
problem faced by many of these countries—the HIV and Aids epidemic
which continues to ravish Commonwealth countries. The Caribbean, where
the meeting is being held, has the second highest rate of infection and
unsurprisingly collectively all states in the region still retain the
buggery laws which criminalise sex between same-gender loving couples.
The link between the criminalisation of homosexuality and the HIV
epidemic is widely documented, and these populations are forced to go
underground, making it difficult for them to access services to combat
the problem.

Yet against this background there is Uganda, with a bill which
imposes the death penalty for even touching someone of similar sex with
the intention to have sex, and for forced HIV testing if there is
suspicion of homosexuality. The bill even calls for the imprisonment or
fining for failure to report evidence of homosexuality within 24 hours.
How is this even possible? Clearly there is no one answer to this
travesty. However I am willing to bet it has to do with the blatant
disregard for the human rights of LGBT people in many of these
societies. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of this within
the Commonwealth: Jamaica is a hotbed for homophobia including violent
crimes and open discrimination of its LGBT citizens.

With ongoing cases of open beatings and mob violence in Jamaica
directed against many of its LGBT citizens, often resulting in their
deaths and with even Prime Minister Bruce Golding and his ministers
openly condemning homosexuals, the Commonwealth Association has
remained notoriously silent. Only two and half years ago, a similar
bill was introduced in Nigeria aimed at imprisoning people in support
of homosexuality and banning people from starting any group which
sought to address these issues. Where is the Commonwealth on this? How
long will actions like these continue to without penalty and action? At
the last Commonwealth meeting, the Munyonyo Statement of Respect and
Understanding called for, among other things, the “respect and dignity
of all persons, taking into account the diversity of all peoples.” What
do statements like these mean? Do they have any weight?

Within the Commonwealth and more importantly for post-colonial
states there are positive examples. The recent decision by the Delhi
High Court in India striking down the offence of sexual intercourse
between consenting adults is its own evidence.
The Commonwealth, which stands for human rights and dignity of all
people, is duty bound to come out against the actions not only of the
Ugandan Government but also the ongoing disgraceful abuse in Jamaica.
In a time when the principles and spirit of the Commonwealth are
threatened, it must reinforce its relevance by addressing these issues.
Article 6 of the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles
acknowledges the common principle of the liberty of all individuals, in
the equal rights of all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed, or
political belief to shape the society in which they live.

Certainly actions such as the bill in Uganda flies in the face of
these principles, and the ongoing and open discrimination of LGBT
citizens in Jamaica, Nigeria and other countries throughout the
Commonwealth are in direct opposition to these principles and values.
Undoubtedly the Commonwealth is facing a serious human rights
challenge. Its commitment to equality is haemorrhaging. The only way to
move forward on these issues is to act. If this bill is passed in
Uganda then the country should be expelled/suspended until it is
revoked. Also, there needs to be engagement on issues of sexual
orientation and gender identity in all the 40 member states which still
retain laws which discriminate based on sexuality, particularly states
such as Jamaica, Uganda and Nigeria.

Daniel A Townsend


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