Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:02 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Labour 3:02 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I refer to my entries in the register of interests, in particular as the founder and founding chair of Stonewall. I want to begin my remarks by congratulating my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, who became the Commonwealth Secretary-General in April last year and who has put human rights at the heart of her tenure. As noble Lords have said, she deserves our unreserved support. I welcome this debate and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on setting the tone in her opening speech because there is much to celebrate among the Commonwealth of 52 independent nations and sovereign states pursuing shared goals such as development, democracy and peace. The 52 nations represent a combined population of 2.4 billion people.

I am grateful to the many organisations which have written to tell us of the benefits of closer relations, closer trade and developing artistic and cultural relations, celebrating the diversity of the nations of the Commonwealth—here I quote the sign outside the Commonwealth Secretariat—“Coming together for the common good”. I wish to recognise the vital work undertaken by the Commonwealth Secretariat in so many areas, but particularly in the field of human rights: universal human rights. I cite the work that the secretariat has undertaken with its programme on national human rights institutions and strengthening the capacities of parliaments and parliamentarians to promote and protect human rights. It has also undertaken important work with the African Union, delivering the first African Girls’ Summit in 2015 and working with the University of Pretoria and the African Commission by convening child marriage dialogues with civil society, national human rights institutions and traditional and religious leaders.

It has undertaken work on LGBTI people’s rights, but that has proved to be much more difficult and states have been deeply resistant to change. The secretariat is rightly trying to build capacity for parliamentarians and institutions to understand the vulnerabilities and the violations faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people. It would be churlish of me not to recognise that the number of countries where LGBTI people are criminalised has reduced—from 41 countries to 36. I, too, recognise and pay tribute to those local LGBTI activists and small NGOs who have undertaken the fight for equality, often resorting to the courts and facing threats to their personal safety and space, to their livelihoods and indeed to their lives. They have shown and continue to show courage and bravery almost beyond imagining. This is the area on which I want to concentrate the Government’s mind and those of the heads of government of the Commonwealth.

Working together for the common good is the aspiration of all, but the benefits of doing so evaporate if you are LGBTI. You are in fact denied the common good and even the common protection of the law, let alone equality before the law. This equality does not exist in 36 out of the 52 states of the Commonwealth. That is a shameful record and one that must be put right. Far too often when we in the north raise our voices, we are accused of neo-colonialism—but our accusers fail to recognise that the laws were imposed on their countries hundreds of years ago by us, a colonial power, and that it is now time for them to throw off such colonial laws. This is where the Government could lead at the summit in 2018 by offering an apology for the laws that we imposed, often with the harshest of penalties, and illustrating that we have now thrown off those repressive laws. By our apology we can encourage others in the Commonwealth to do the same. I do not expect an answer from the Minister, but I would urge the Government with every fibre of my being to consider this and to bring about a real change in the dynamic of LGBTI rights—human rights—in the Commonwealth.

Let me remind your Lordships of the reality of this discrimination, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, described earlier. Criminalisation fosters egregious and systematic human rights violations across the generations and directly harms LGBTI individuals in numerous ways, regardless of whether the laws are actually enforced. It limits access to employment, education, healthcare and housing, and it outlaws LGBTI people’s very identities and makes them second-class citizens in both the public and private sphere. It can result in gross violations such as murder, assault, “corrective rape”, forced or coerced marriage and suicide. Sadly, I could go on because the list is long.

Criminalisation affects the non-nationals of those countries, too, such as LGBTI people who are asked by their Governments, NGOs or international companies to go to those countries—or indeed who are tourists. These discriminatory laws are largely excused by reference to culture, tradition or religion. I deeply respect culture, tradition and religion—but not as an excuse for such human rights abuses. Far too often, organised religions remain silent on the discrimination and persecution faced by LGBTI people and their families, and the silence should end. Whether from the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim leaders or elsewhere, the silence must end.

At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, the Kaleidoscope Trust, which does brilliant work in this area, along with its partner, the Commonwealth Equality Network, raised the issue of LBGT rights in a number of forums and had some influence on the final communiqué. Now is the time to build on that at the 2018 summit in order to achieve significant commitments to positive change

I believe, as do many others, that the Commonwealth summit is the perfect place to facilitate important south-to-south exchanges, and that the UK as the host Government are uniquely positioned to create the space for civil society to engage with decision-makers who are not normally willing or able to consider LGBTI concerns. I will look to the Government for support and will welcome their reaction to that approach. Once again, I believe that the most important way to ensure a way forward for other member states is by an apology from our Government for imposing laws through colonialism which criminalised LGBT people and led to wider discriminatory laws and practices.

Finally, I want to pay tribute again to the work undertaken by the Kaleidoscope Trust, the Commonwealth Equality Network, the Human Dignity Trust—which is so active behind the scenes—and Stonewall. Most of all, I want to remember David Kato, the kind, gentle, compassionate Ugandan LGBTI activist who was murdered and who even in death was refused a dignified burial by his church. I want to remember him and LGBTI activists and others in the Commonwealth and beyond who put their lives at risk by daring to ask to be treated fairly, justly and equally alongside others. These are the heroes and heroines who make me proud to be a member of the human race and a citizen of the Commonwealth.