Posted, November 27th, 2015
The work of the Commonwealth Equality Network started 18 months ago, which included circulating a Collaboration and Consensus a report on mapping out the Commonwealth unique characteristics for political engagement. This included having meetings at the Royal Commonwealth Society Building, meeting parliamentary leaders individuals, assessing international reports and sharing knowledge about the structure of the Commonwealth secretariat. The process of political engagement is sometime tedious and boring, but it was clear with the leadership of Alistair Stuart and with support from Kaliedscope Trust the work at CHOGM slowly took shape with a clear vision of how engagement was to take place. Like all things, ideas of engagement evolve from a myriad of places. The Doughty Street group, of the UK, helped to facilitate reflection and leadership to act in international spaces and activists refining the engagement process to its finality.
While it can be said, that the concept of a network started with Rosana Caldera of Equal Ground, Sri Lanka and Lance Price former Executive Director of Kaliedscope Trust, what is clear, in international spaces is that a concerted effort is underway, that complements TCEN work at CHOGM with national efforts that have included litigation in Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, Belize, Guyana, Bermuda.What was clear is that the OAS has an Inter-American Court, a Commission, an LGBT UNIT, Conventions but the Commonwealth has one Charter and a Secretariat that manages two year activities influenced by the A Communique and outcome documents from the Forums. This is the biggest difference between the systems.
Additionally, the international and regional environment are evolving using platform issues like HIV and gender discussion to advance of health and human rights. However, little regard is given about the political capacity of small LGBT organization to engage the political environment nor the diplomatic restricts that exists when UN agencies engage on human rights at the national level. Whether intentional or unintentional, the culture of health investment is frame in a position that,' Minority Rights must be protected, but the will of the majority must prevail.' A political culture that institutionalizes the superficial presence of marginalise groups at the policy table, that creates non-existent political accountability systems that allows the spending of millions on health education and paper strategies for human rights, but distinctly ignores the socio-economic and civil rights of not only marginalise groups as a whole, but LGBT people in the various regions in particular.
In addition policy norming, have taken place at the OAS which have adopted seven LGBT resolutions, since 2008, that have led to resources to investigate discrimination and violence and allowed for political access to its Inter-American Commission and General Assembly. This was complimented by the African Commission condemning Acts of Violence against LGBT persons and the UN resolution on extrajudicial killings that have done so base on sexual orientation and gender identity. We unfortunately, are not the only ones fighting for Justice equality, as our friends at Black Lives Matter, points out, being visible, being clear and remembering the blood that have been lost is not to be taken for grant. More importantly, accepting the status quo is accepting oppression in a system that deliberately marginalise and that we must all find our voice.
In the spirit of finding our voice, Two days before CHOGM in Malta, fifty people rallied outside the London headquarters of the Commonwealth,. Supported by Out and Proud Diamond Group, a Peter Thatchell release is noted as saying, “For 66 years, the Commonwealth Summit (CHOGM) has refused to even discuss LGBTI human rights, let alone support LGBTI equality. This CHOGM is no different. They won’t even allow LGBTI rights on the agenda.” His Out and Proud Diamond Group colleague, Abbey Kiwanuka, added: “At least seven Commonwealth countries impose life imprisonment for homosexuality. Parts of northern Nigeria and rural Pakistan have the death penalty for LGBTI people, and Brunei plans to introduce death by stoning. This makes a mockery of the Commonwealth Charter.
- The release also defined four points that can be said to add one more layer to the discussion on visibility and political engagement.
- Establish on-going consultations and partnerships with LGBTI organisations in the member states
- Set a timetable for Commonwealth countries to decriminalise homosexuality and legislate legal protection against anti-LGBTI discrimination and hate crime
- Establish on-going consultations and partnerships with LGBTI organisations in the member states
- Promote adherence to the Commonwealth Charter and international human rights conventions that protect the rights of all citizens, including LGBTI citizens
As an activists, one learns to restrain ones emotions despite the experiences of violence and urgency in a state that does not acknowledge bias-motivated crimes, homophobia or legal discrimination. In fact, few commonwealth countries have basic anti-discrimination laws. Among CARICOM member states, where 11 countries criminalizes same sex intimacy, there is no such protection. For TCEN or the Commonwealth Equality Network, our achievement were many. In our first session at CHOGM, it was entitled, LGBTI Policy Dialogue – Resilient societies safeguard the security of all people in all their diversity. Present at our first panel was Baroness Sandip Verma Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, UK who chaired the session with a look that ensured you knew it was time to wrap-up. while speakers included, Dr Helena Dalli MP Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, Malta; First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia Dr Lachlan Strahan along with fellow Advocates, Steve from South Africa and Ruth Baldacchino from Malta.
At the session, Belize pointed out that it was appalling to know that personal dignity and rights could be negotiated so easily by states and that the ability to speaks in CHOGM , must not forget the blood of the fallen that have been spilled in the pass. Few will lead, many will wait for freedom as oppressive environment and family support as a social mechanism, affect how persons express their visibility. It has been clear that most countries in the commonwealth have never needed to deal with its legal and general fiduciary responsibilities to its L.G.B.T people and that efforts to raise the knowledge levels of leaders is an important part of the process of political engagement. The Australian representative spoke of the difficulties in negotiating language in resolutions and other documents and that its a delicate process of engagement. What was clear with activists presentations and political leaders was that progress would not happen in isolation and that Civil Society has a critical role to play in pushing the issue forward in international spaces and at home. The argument that LGBT issues is a Western imposition ignores that most states are govern by a constitution which recognizes the explicit rights of all its citizens. When one analyzes the issue of North /South divide, it can be said that the resentment is not about LGBT rights, but about the economic divide that exist between member states.
In addition to panel one, we had a 2nd panel the following day that spoke of national challenges. This included activists from the Tonga, Kenya, Malta. Belize did its part centering around its approach to collecting information about opponents, the struggles of taking advantage of the media coverage and it use of social media to directly shape the social narrative about its challenges regarding public education and opposition. What was clear in that presentation was that family can be on the frontlines of social change or act as a mechanism of oppression. What was establish in the end, is that we fight for ourselves, we fight for mothers we dont know and we fight for sisters living in violence as their experience is our experience, for when they are weak, we are weaker for it as a social movement. As such, gender issues will remain deeply personal, in the fight to transform our society and advance justice for all.
In the 2nd session was was the representative from Tonga who stole the show with her song, that left chills in the room. This was the 3rd time I heard her sing, once was at Wilton Park, the 2nd time was at Baker and Mckenzie in London the 3rd time was at CHOGM, in Malta. The song reminded us all how we can channel our concerns, heartbreak and hurt that allows an audience to connect to its own humanity.
A lovely Indian gentleman in a wheel chair named Bandula Kothalacoda of TUC or the Trade Union Congress was present. He was kind enough to share the the TUC position on LGBT human rights which spoke to the following:
- We welcome proactive legislative developments in some countries, especially, Malta, Cyprus, Australia, Fiji, South Africa, and the repeal of oppressive laws in Mozambique.
- We condemned the attempts by a number of governments, notable in Africa (Nigeria and Uganda in particular) to boraden the scope of laws that can be used against the LGBT community.
- We reiterate our belief that civil society in the commonwealth including unions should take the lead in mobilising support for protection of human rights of the LGBT community. We note that in some countries discrimination against LGBT workers workers has been outlawed mainly due to the pressure from trade unions backed by the ILO.
While this is not the final end of the TUC position call for specific reference in outlawing discrimination, harassment and violence against the LGBT community. Bandula is a humble man of great strength and was proud to have engage in conversation with him.
Through all this, we had time to an AGM in Malta that was Co-Chaired by Belize, we did interviews and tracked imagery of our presence across the forums either through allies or direct photos taken by the organizes and twittered comments that were supportive.
Additionally, we saw the PM of Malta, Joseph Muscata express supportive language on LGBT Rights as well at the out-going Secretary General, Karmalesh Sharma chimed in and added in a separate seech, '..Being committed to equality and human rights for all, without discrimination on any grounds, we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity. Discrimination and criminalisation in any form on grounds of sexual orientation is incompatible with our Commonwealth values.'
We saw the President of Malta get into the act of ensuring that inclusion applied to all. In her speech, Her Excellency Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said, 'We must think about inclusion as a process in which we must ensure equal opportunities for all...True inclusion cannot discriminate on grounds of gender....even if some progress has been made, the fact is that women, girls and gender minorities continue to occupy a disadvantaged position throughout the world.'
Jason Jones and my self did a number of interventions to raise the questions of LGBT concern. Immediately we saw Minister, Dr. Micheal Farrugia of Malta for Family and Social Solidarity etc get up to give his story of how he was excluded with his partner when the pope visited while another gentleman, who was, Sonny Loeng, the Chair for the Council of the Commonwealth got up and said,' Its time the commonwealth show leadership and take a position on LGBT issues, child slave workers, Female Genital Mutilation and Human Rights'
The CHOGM was for Youth, Women, People and Business as all groups had a forum for each. The Peoples Forum was held at the Corinthia Hotel in Malta. As I write, the Heads of Ministers are meeting late into the night, as the last and most important document the Communique remains. We note, that work has been focused on getting language into the People, Youth and Women's Forum which will inform the Commonwealth Secretariat work for the next two years. Never before has their ever been a direct session at CHOGM on LGBT issues along with so much political language of support. Changing the political substance of CHOGM cannot be rushed as countries are at different levels in their political system. I am reminded that the UK took 60 years to evolve. It did take CHOGM 66 years to allow two LGBT sessions in one of its forum. The questions for the day is, Will it take another 60 years for all countries to be on the same page on LGBT human rights. In the meantime, are diplomats absolving themselves from their constitutional responsibility and the blood, violence and harassment that occur? Who protects LGBT individual, if states across the commonwealth refuses to do it? Are states complicit by indifference, omission and inaction in letting violence and discrimination simply happen? As one looks at all the leaders with the queen, lets see what the next CHOGM brings in two years from now, as Malta chairs and host the CHOGM this year.
Nevertheless, as Civil Society we are relentless in our approach to political engagement, we learned today that Baron Patrica Scotland, won the post of Secretary General for the Commonwealth. We remain happy she won as Belize supported her efforts to vy for the post. In the Maltese Parliament, our representative, Kenita Placide of United and Strong of St. Lucia got to ask the candidates an LGBT question. We found that the Baroness, overall, performed well, in the questioning process and look forward to working with her in the future. Here is the TCEN crew as we looked on from the balcony.
For Belize, we have used this space to share our struggles, engage systems that can coordinate diplomatic resources and engage our Foreign Minister. The question of institutional change remains, can we be the first, to offer our people anti-discrimination legislation, among CARICOM member states and lead in the next meeting to be held in Belize in 2016? Time will tell!
In the meantime, CHOGM offered young activists Donnya D. Piggott a chance to engage Foreign Ministers in the Commonwealth along with fellow TCEN member. She reported back," I was honored enough to address over 80% of the foreign ministers of the entire commonwealth for just over 3 minutes on the need for anti-discrimination legislation and protection laws for LGBTI people across the commonwealth on behalf of The Commonwealth Equality Network(and yes Hon. Maxine McClean was there). It was a beautiful moment. The foreign minister for St. Vincent supported my statement and spoke warmly about tolerance - He concluded by quoting the Pope 'Who am I to judge?'. Canada's foreign minister also supported my statement and encouraged dialogue and emphasized Canada's position on the issue. The Bahamas boasted of their decriminalization of homophobic laws since the 90's. But one of the most warming moments for me was my 10 minute conversation with the foreign minister and representatives of Uganda who welcomed my palatable and non-confrontational approach to collaborate instead of dictating. It was pure love from the Ugandan foreign minister and representatives and from many other ministers and diplomats from around the world..."
What one learns from political engagement is that tone can be set without any commitment to substance and while my colleague helped to set the tone, the substance of committing resources in the commonwealth Secretariat will remain to be seen in time along with a policy position.
On the heels of her experience which was a good one, a fellow activists wrote, "What Uganda passed is a law that govern NGO operations. Its called the the NGO Bill. The net effect of the law though is to reintroduce the provisions of the annulled law through the back door, under the guise of another law. in effect LGBTI forms of organizing whether formal or informal will be criminal. The Law gives powers to the NGOboard to refuse registration of an NGO of its view it offends te dignity of the poeple of Uganda. It also gives power to de-register any organization that works to contravene the divinity of the people of Uganda. It further criminalises any form of civic organizing without the issuance of a permit from the NGO board." He goes on to say," our ministers can act deceptively. Do not be misled, they habor extreme hatred for sexual minorities."
We must be mindful as well, that no CARICOM state has anti-discrimination legislation nor has any among the 11 countries that criminalises same sex intimacy made a commitment to do away with the laws. Furthermore, when 140 right-wing groups signed a petition to derail the PANCAP Roadmap on Stigma and discrimination, they failed to endorse it calling for further consultations on the roadmap and placing the goal of decriminalisation on the lower end of its priority. In the end, to agree to do nothing on decriminalisation.
For TCEN, its engagement role in CHOGM was a first, first sessions, first young activist to engage Commonwealth Foreign Minister, first network of openly gay activists, and first to have politicians at the table. It took advantage of all our experiences and channel them into diplomatic engagement that allow for dialogue. Our Kenita Placide couldnt help herself, which I support in a photo-op with the new Secretary General Baroness Patrica Scotland.
The future is hopeful, that as blood spills around the world, that conversations and engagements opens, just a bit more to advance protections.