UK rows back on plans to promote gay rights at Commonwealth summit


Britain has been accused of “caving in” to pressure from the governments of Commonwealth states which criminalise homosexuality after doubts emerged over a planned UK effort to promote gay rights at the bloc’s upcoming summit in London.

A guide on international best practice on sexual orientation and gender identity had been due to be published by the Government Equalities Office on 16 April, the opening day of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm).

The summit “presents an opportunity to engage with Commonwealth member states and continue the UK’s special responsibility to advance equality across the Commonwealth for people with minority sexual orientations and gender identities,” according to details of a tender seeking a supplier for the guide.

However, as the summit approaches, the government has been unable to confirm whether or not the guide would be published in time, saying only that it would come out “in due course”.

The issue of LGBT rights remains a sensitive topic within the Commonwealth while some 37 of its 53 nations still outlaw homosexuality.

The Labour MP Chris Bryant expressed concern about whether the initiative would go ahead.

“It as if the government is now soft pedalling on the issue of LGBT rights. It might be the case now that they would prefer to publish this at a later date when no one will really notice,” he said.

The bloc was described as a “bastion of homophobia” by the veteran human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, who said that the government appeared to have downgraded what was supposed to be a new report and gone back on a promise to publish on 16 April to coincide with the Commonwealth summit.

“This sends a very negative signal to the more than 100 million LGBT+ people who suffer criminalisation, discrimination and violence in 70% of Commonwealth countries,” he said.

“It looks like Theresa May and Boris Johnson have caved in to pressure from homophobic member states to not highlight LGBT+ rights during the summit. Appeasing homophobes is despicable.”

During the summit, Tatchell and other campaigners are planning a picket of the Commonwealth secretariat’s headquarters at Marlborough in London on 19 April when they will be joined by LGBT delegates from various countries.

Rights activists suspect that the government is eager not to offend other Commonwealth states as it seeks to use the first Chogm meeting since Britain voted to leave the EU to foster new trading relationships.

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, has spoken of how the summit is a chance to “redefine the trading relationship of the Commonwealth” and “re-invigorate” Britain’s links with other member states as Brexit talks continue.

However, leaders at Commonwealth summits have tended to avoid significant discussions of LGBT rights. Nine of the member states that criminalise homosexuality have life imprisonment as the punishment while more are accused of failing to protect LGBT people against discrimination and hate crime.

In February, the British overseas territory of Bermuda also became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise and then repeal same-sex marriage, in what critics have called an unprecedented rollback of civil rights by the British territory.

Pressed by Bryant as to why the move had been approved by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the junior Foreign Office minister, Harriett Baldwin, said the government was “obviously disappointed” but felt it had no choice after legislation was decided by the island’s elected government.

The best practice guide, which the UK government has been seeking to develop, is envisaged as an aid for elected officials and policymakers in Commonwealth states, according to details of the tender document. It insisted that there has been progress on rights in some parts of the Commonwealth, listing the examples of Nauru, Seychelles and Mozambique decriminalising same-sex acts in recent years.

“But positive achievements go beyond decriminalisation of same-sex acts and a number of countries have laws protecting against discrimination in employment, allow organisations working on these issues to register, and/or have other inclusive policies. Celebrating and sharing these positive steps is vital in order to ensure this progress continues.”

It added that there was currently a gap in the literature available when it comes to sharing up-to-date best practice examples of how Commonwealth member states are protecting and supporting citizens with a minority sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. These included examples of how some states had reformed their penal code and developed policy to address bullying and hate crime related to sexuality and gender.



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