This past week, the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that UK aid would be withheld from countries that ban homosexuality. “Britain is one of the premier aid givers in the world. We want to see countries that receive our aid adhering to proper human rights”, Cameron is quoted in a BBC interview. The UK decision was made following a report by the Eminent Persons Group to the Commonwealth heads of government at the 2011 biennial summit just concluded in Perth.
The 206-page report ‘A Commonwealth of the people: Time for urgent reform’ (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2011) is indeed remarkable for the attempt to systematically highlight all manner of human rights abuses in member states. It recalls the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG) initial understanding, at its inception in 1995, of the need to respond to human rights abuses. The report authors imply that the CMAG has instead buried its head in the sand, failing to hold members accountable for human rights violations and intervening only rarely. The report evokes human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in international declarations, covenants and other agreements dating back to 1948. The report recommends creating a new “Charter of the Commonwealth” and a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
For all the uproar since Cameron’s announcement, it may come as a surprise to many that the rights of same-sex couples are evoked only once in the massive document:
“We have also received submissions concerning criminal laws in many Commonwealth countries that penalise adult consensual private sexual conduct including between people of the same sex. These laws are a particular historical feature of British colonial rule. […] It is one of concern to the Commonwealth not only because of the particular legal context but also because it can call into question the commitment of member states to the Commonwealth’s fundamental values and principles including fundamental human rights and non-discrimination”. (pg. 100)
This mention places the criminalization of same-sex relationships in a medical context, citing the negative repercussions on efforts to curb the spread of HIV. Reducing discrimination to a medical issue is problematic however that is another issue.
The ensuing recommendation reads:
“R60. Heads of Government should take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and commit to programmes of education that would help a process of repeal of such laws”. (pg. 102)
How did this perfectly sanguine argument snowball into the current multi-headed dragon that it now is? Blame sensationalist media coverage of the report and maladroit announcements such as Mr. Cameron’s. Western media reports have tended to take a matter-of-fact ‘like it or not’ approach while media in aid recipient countries largely express outrage on the new aid conditionality of legalizing homosexuality, as understood.
Apparently homosexuality is illegal in 41 out of the 54 Commonwealth member states. My attempt to learn the identity of the 13 progressive countries led to a Wikipedia listing that is somewhat misleading. Kenya for instance is listed as a country in which male same-sex ‘activity’ is outlawed, and female same-sex ‘activity’ as ‘legal’. Now for those who understand Kenyan law which, similar to former British colonies, is a direct off-shoot of the British legal system, female same-sex relationships are not mentioned. Kenyans do not misconstrue this silence as a legal endorsement of lesbian relationships. The only implication is that no legal grounds exist under which to prosecute lesbians for their sexuality.
But I digress. My concern is that media’s twist to the story coupled with the ill-thought decision to cut aid have created a multi-headed dragon that will surely be another nail in the coffin for LGBT rights in the global south. The public’s right to know and understand the issues is transgressed; the likelihood that they will have the opportunity or patience to hear the full story in all its complexity is slim. For instance, it is not public knowledge that prior to the recommendation, our collective voices as the LGBT community around the world through an online petition supported Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary General, following his speech to end the discrimination of LGBT. Signatories to the petition each recounted personal stories on the impact of discrimination on their lives. We urged the leaders to take steps to hold member states accountable without prescribing specific directions for action.
Perhaps we should have pushed further to offer an analysis on possible actions that could have avoided the ill-conceived decision to withhold budgetary aid, an action that will affect the poor regardless of their sexuality. Following the announcement, civil society groups have petitioned the British government not to cut aid but to switch it to programmes that support human rights.
A final word. In this discussion I have steered away from questions about the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, a different debate altogether. Whether a former colonial power and ex-colonial states should be enjoined in a common bloc, whether there are indeed shared interests, is a different discussion.