Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 1:30 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this timely and important debate on our future relationship and leadership role with the Commonwealth. As the Minister will be aware, and as noble Lords may be aware, the Foreign Office has five principles for its priorities for the Commonwealth. I hope all five will be promoted in our leadership role at the Heads of Government event that will take place in 2018.

The third of those priorities is “Promoting Human Rights, Democratic Values and the Rule of Law”. I want to highlight to noble Lords one area in that category:

“Promoting tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom for all Commonwealth Citizens regardless of race, gender, religion, physical ability or sexual orientation”.

It is important to raise that because while both trade and the structures of the Commonwealth are important, they are meaningless if the human rights of every single individual in the Commonwealth are not upheld. That must be a leadership role that we play. I understand that there is a very thin tightrope to walk in terms of not being seen as a western nation lecturing others where human rights may not be upheld. We must be supportive and encourage civil society, but at the same time show leadership and speak up when leadership is needed.

We talk about having shared values and beliefs, and working together across the Commonwealth on joint issues, and we sometimes we speak as though we in the Commonwealth are a homogeneous group, but clearly we are not. For example, would we in this House, or indeed most people in this country, say that gay people were disgusting? Would we say that homosexuality was unnatural and not a human right? Those are the words of certain Presidents in Commonwealth countries. Would we, as certain states in Nigeria do, have the death penalty for people who are gay? Would we want to see life imprisonment for people who are gay? Would we want to publicly name and shame people in the press for being gay, knowing that their lives, livelihoods and families were often at risk, purely because of the person they loved? I think the answer is no, and therefore we need to speak up—maybe a little louder than we do now, and maybe using our leadership role at this conference to ensure that these issues are central rather than seen to be muted.

I know the Minister has been superb on the issue of gay rights. There is no doubt about that at all, and all civil society organisations in the UK attest to that. However, maybe she is ahead of others in the Government, and we need to see the same leadership from everyone in the Government on this issue. I ask noble Lords to imagine that this was not about someone’s sexuality but that those same things were are being done because of the colour of someone’s skin, their gender or their disability. Not only would we be outraged, as many of us are with regard to sexuality, but I think we would be a little stronger in pushing members of the Commonwealth and the Government to uphold human rights.

I ask the Minister to ensure that these issues are central. You cannot have good relationships within a family unless everyone in that family is respected and treated equally. We must remind members of our family that they need to do more, not by lecturing but in a way that is supportive and brings in others. I will come back to that in a moment. I draw the House’s attention to the progressive words of the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, who spoke at the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey on Monday. He said:

“I want to single out respect for LGBTIQ persons. The lack of it in a remarkable number of our countries is, arguably, a considerable blot in our family of nations’ standing. I have had conversations and am aware that there are leaders who know things must change, but are wary of how society would react to their first move. To them I say that the Commonwealth will be with them to help them make the first bold steps. History, I am sure, will judge them positively when they do so”.

I thought it was particularly brave of that Prime Minister to raise such issues when it was difficult. I hope and ask that at every opportunity our Government, in the leadership role in 2018, raise with absolute clarity the issue of LGBTIQ persons in the Commonwealth in the way that he has done.

We in the Commonwealth are a family of nations. When families have disagreements, there are different ways of dealing with them. You could lecture, though that is not always necessarily the best role. You could put people on the naughty step, which is also not always the best way forward. You can debate and you can discuss, which I am asking the Minister to do, but maybe you could also bring in the extended family to help—in this case, the extended family are the activists and civil society who support LGBT individuals who are persecuted in areas across the Commonwealth—to ensure that our family becomes a progressive one, and that all people are seen as equal and respected within that family of nations.

I shall give the Minister some suggestions for how this could be done and will ask specifically whether the Government will agree to these kinds of issues. I particularly thank the Kaleidoscope Trust, which has briefed me very well. It is one of the civil society organisations here in the UK that works across the Commonwealth with civil society groups to promote the equality of lesbian, gay and transsexual citizens. As the Minister will be aware, the Kaleidoscope Trust and its partners in the Commonwealth Equality Network have a strategy to implement, between now and the 2018 Heads of Government Meeting, an action plan, which is kindly being funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. However, there is no funding to implement the action plan, so we may have a plan with very little action because the money is not there. Will the Government commit to fund the action plan that the CEN comes up with to ensure that the things that could happen to strengthen human rights across the Commonwealth can be implemented?

The CEN would also like the UK, potentially with other like-minded countries, to announce a ring-fenced funding stream to be held by the Commonwealth Secretariat to support the reform of outdated criminal laws—not just on sexuality, but any outdated criminal laws. I ask the Minister if the Government, in their leadership role, would also look at a ring-fenced fund to help to ensure that outdated laws are repealed and that, again, there is a fund to help civil society in that.

It would be helpful if the language that the CEN uses were to be included in the leaders’ communiqué. Language is very important. The very fact that these issues are being raised in a sovereign Parliament in the Commonwealth will give strength not only to those in civil society who are fighting for this but to individual people who feel worthless or as though they do not have a voice. That is why it is important that the language of the communiqué should reflect some of the language used by the CEN.

In some of the plenaries and side events during the event, some of the civil society forums on subjects such as business, people, women and youth, which have been identified, have an LGBT element. It is important that that is not sidelined and marginalised in the plenaries and the civil society organisations.

My time is nearly up. I finish by saying that history will judge this family of nations and the leadership role that we take not just by what we say and not just by how we trade, but by what we do to support all people within our family of nations to be equal. That is why I ask that priority be given to human rights, particularly to LGBT citizens, and that they are not secondary to a trading bloc.