Commonwealth states must repeal discriminatory, anti-gay laws

Roger Pebody
Published: 27 November 2009

As the Commonwealth heads of government gather for their biennial meeting today, civil society groups have called on member states to repeal discriminatory legislation left behind from the colonial era. In particular they call for laws criminalising sex between men to be repealed.

The Port of Spain Civil Society Statement, agreed on Wednesday, called on Commonwealth countries to “work to actively remove and prevent the establishment of legislation which undermines evidence-based effective HIV prevention, treatment and care available to marginalised and vulnerable groups, such as sexual minorities, sex workers and drug users”. Moreover, the civil society groups called on member states to “legislate anti-discrimination acts in support of people with HIV by 2011”.

Only six of 53 Commonwealth nations have repealed laws criminalising gay men and other sexual minorities. Moreover the Ugandan parliament is considering an Anti-Homosexuality Bill which would impose the death penalty on HIV-positive gay men who continue to have sex as well as criminalising homosexual conduct and any public acknowledgement of the existence of homosexuality.

Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa said that “if the Commonwealth does not address this issue of the Uganda law and the accelerating homophobic legislation in the Caribbean, then the lofty principles of the Commonwealth lie in tatters”.

He stressed that criminalising homosexuality discourages access to prevention and treatment services. However he noted that legislative change is possible: every single Latin American country has now removed anti-gay legislation, thereby facilitating HIV prevention. India's High Court struck down a statute dating from colonial times which criminalised sex between men in July 2009.

Writing in The Guardian today, British human rights activist Peter Tatchell argues: "For two decades, successive Commonwealth leaders have shown a systematic, persistent failure to challenge homophobic discrimination and violence – no matter how extreme."

He also highlights the penalties attached to consenting sex between men in some Commonwealth countries. "Same-sex relations carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment in Uganda, Bangladesh, Guyana and Sierra Leone. It is 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia, and 14 years in Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi and Papua New Guinea. Twelve states in Nigeria have sharia law and the death penalty."

The majority of Commonwealth states are in Africa and Caribbean, the two regions with the highest HIV prevalence in the world.

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