Date: 27 May 2011
Author: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Published in Nairobi's The Star
Human rights are a top priority in the Commonwealth. The 2009 ‘Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles’ is our updated point of departure building on public statements of the past about what the Commonwealth stands for. In that Affirmation all Heads of Government have solemnly reiterated their commitment to human rights “...for all without discrimination on any grounds...” This includes discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
The Affirmation also commits the Commonwealth to exploring ways “in which it could more effectively deal with the full range of serious or persistent violations of such values by member states”.
All member governments are aware of this commitment, and have a responsibility to uphold it and reflect it in national life. It is easy to overlook how recently attitudes and legislation on homosexuality have changed even in the United Kingdom.
One only has to look back to vilification Peter Tatchell was subjected to when he stood as a candidate for the UK Parliament in the Southwark parliamentary by-election of 1983. It had been described as ‘the dirtiest, most violent election in Britain in the twentieth century’.
Considering that the vast majority of Commonwealth member countries are less than 50 years old it is remarkable how rapidly they have adopted the values and freedoms taken for granted in countries with far longer histories of self-determination.
Some of our most important and effective work goes on behind the scenes; this sometimes leads to a perception that we are inactive or silent on certain issues. This could not be further from the truth.
My approach is to support mechanisms that bolster internal dialogue and help member states to embed their international commitments. For example we deliver unobtrusive practical assistance on ratification of human rights treaties. We work closely with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and others including civil society to help prepare countries to respond to the UN’s process of ‘Universal Periodic Review’. We have helped set up National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Maldives and the Seychelles and we convene a network of national human rights bodies within the Commonwealth and support and strengthen their work.
I have consistently made it clear publicly that we deplore hate crimes of any nature and the vilification and targeting of gay and lesbian people runs counter to the fundamental values of the Commonwealth, which include non-discrimination on any grounds.
I also recognised the Delhi High Court for its landmark decision to decriminalise homosexual acts. This addressed a legal legacy of the British colonial era that continues to affect more than three quarters of Commonwealth countries long after Britain itself has moved on.
I have often pointed out in public statements to legal and human rights conferences that many member countries are challenged with reconciling Commonwealth principles of dignity, equality and non-discrimination as well as the Commonwealth value of respect for fundamental human rights on one hand, with issues of unjust criminalisation found in colonial current domestic legislation in this area, on the other.
If attitudes are to change, if homophobia is to be challenged - as it should - and if laws on homosexuality are to be reformed the best hope lies in democratic and legal processes.
Democracy promotes debate on enlightened policies, provides solutions owned by the people, reflects national will, protects the interests of majorities and minorities, and is adaptable. Democratic legal processes provide prospects of progressive redress.
The Commonwealth operates through encouragement not coercion. Ours is the helping hand not the publicly wagging finger used by others. That is how progress on human rights has been best achieved in the Commonwealth.
Click here to view the article on The Star website.