Commonwealth Summit ends with continuing struggle over reforming anti-gay laws

by on October 31, 2011  •  In Criminal law, International

The Commonwealth Summit, a biennial meeting of heads of state of British Commonwealth nations, ended its weekend meeting in Perth Australia with no decision on a new mechanism for addressing human rights abuses in member nations. The human rights controversy has arisen around a cluster of issues including the continuing existence of criminal and other laws targeting gay people. According to press reports, the conclave was driven in part by resentment toward Global North members nations to reject the recommendation of a blue-ribbon group to establish a Commonwealth human rights commissioner. The meeting also officially deep-sixed the group's report, entitled "Time for Urgent Reform." One of the human rights concerns addressed in the report (p. 100) concerned anti-gay laws:

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. They have remained unchanged in many developing countries of the Commonwealth despite evidence that other Commonwealth countries have been successful in reducing cases of HIV infection by including repeal of such laws in their measures to combat the disease. Repeal of such laws facilitates the outreach to individuals and groups at heightened risk of infection. The importance of addressing this matter has received global attention through the United Nations. 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. 

On this issue, British Prime Minister Cameron added a warning of curtailed UK aid to countries that continue to enforce such laws. From The Guardian:

Britain has threatened countries that ban homosexuality with losing aid payments unless they reform, David Cameron has said. But he conceded that "deep prejudices" in some countries meant the problem would persist for years.

The prime minister said he had raised the issue with leaders of some of the states involved when he attended the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Australia. Britain was "putting the pressure on", he said. But it was not a problem that would be solved by the time Commonwealth leaders are next due to meet, in Sri Lanka in 2013…

Ending bans on homosexuality was one of the recommendations of a highly critical internal report on the future relevance of the Commonwealth, written by experts from across the member nations. "We are not just talking about it. We are also saying that British aid should have more strings attached," Cameron said on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show in an interview recorded at the summit in Perth.

"This is an issue where we are pushing for movement, we are prepared to put some money behind what we believe. But I'm afraid that you can't expect countries to change overnight. 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. We are saying that is one of the things that determines our aid policy, and there have been particularly bad examples where we have taken action."


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