Two of Britain’s leading campaigners against homophobia – Peter Tatchell and Lord (Guy) Black of Brentwood – have urged the 54 member states of the Commonwealth to take strong and immediate action against political leaders who threaten gays with arrest, imprisonment, torture and sometimes death.
And they warn unless this is done at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth this year (28-30 October), there is a chance that the 65-year old multi-racial 'club' headed by Queen Elizabeth II will become increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of millions of young people around the world.
“The Commonwealth heads of government have always refused to address the widespread violation of LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Transexual) rights,” Australia – born Tatchell said in an October 3 statement. We want this (CHOGM) to be the breakthrough summit.”
Tatchell is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and a leading gay activist.
“I wrote an article in May in The Guardian newspaper,” said Tatchell, "which strongly criticised the Secretary General (Kamalesh Sharma) and the Commonwealth for their failure to speak out against homophobic and transphobic persecution in member countries.”
The result was encouraging and Tatchell - who once tried to arrest President Robert Mugabe outside Harrods for torturing journalists and persecuting gay men and lesbians in Zimbabwe - praised Sharma for becoming the first Commonwealth Secretary General to make an explicit and unequivocal public statement criticising homophobia and homophobic discrimination.”
More than 40 Commonwealth countries currently criminalise homosexuality, mostly as a result of laws that were imposed by Britain during the colonial era and which were not repealed when these nations won their independence.
These 40-plus Commonwealth member states account for more than half of the world’s countries which still criminalise same-sex relations.
Homosexual acts are still punishable by life imprisonment in seven Commonwealth countries - Bangladesh, Barbados, Guiana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda.
In a further six Commonwealth nations, this 'crime' is punishable by hard labour. In Malaysia, convicted gays face imprisonment of up to 20 years, plus flogging. In Trinidad and Tobago the sentences are usually 25 years.
At a political rally in 2008, President Jammeh of Gambia said if homosexuals are caught in his West African state, they would be beheaded.
“How can an organisation be relevant in a modern world where it appears able to tolerate such a state of affairs,” the Chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, Lord (Guy) Black of Brentwood asked at a seminar attended by a group of Commonwealth executives and supporters held at a room in the House of Commons on 12 October.
Both Peter Tatchell and Guy Black praised work done by the Commonwealth Law Ministers in Sydney earlier this year and Tatchell said in his statement that the Secretary General reiterated that sexual orientation victimisation is incompatible with Commonwealth values.
“We now need to build on these successes by ensuring that LGBT human rights are on the agenda of the heads of government when they meet in Perth at the end of this month. Time is short. Please lobby the Secretary General at your earliest convenience.”
At the House of Commons meeting, Lord Black said it would be no easy task tackling homophobes within, and outside, the Commonwealth..
But he called for strong, imaginative and courageous leadership in order to engage with those in countries with draconian anti-gay laws who want change in their countries.
The present situation, he said, was untenable and had to change. “It is a subject that I feel passionately about. It is an issue which, I think, should be central to CHOGM.”
Asked about threats made to gays by President Jammeh, Lord Black said:
"I think the leadership of the Commonwealth needs to do more to make clear that this sort of behaviour, that sort of language, those sort of draconian laws, are not acceptable. I don’t think that the Commonwealth has been as clear as it should be. But the Commonwealth Secretary General has made a start – but it is just a start.
“But I don’t think there’s going to be an easy answer. If the Commonwealth is to mean anything, we have to respect different religions and different faiths but I do think that even if it isn’t couched in terms of public health, there are ways we can make progress while still respecting the variety of cultures and backgrounds we come from.”
In many parts of the world, gays are driven underground and therefore denied medicines that can prolong their lives if they are HIV positive.
But despite all the problems, there is some hope on the Commonwealth horizon.
If, as seems likely, an eminent person will be appointed as Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights, he or she will be responsible for tackling issues such as homophobia and the eventual dismantling of media laws which stifle the free press and threaten journalists.
In Gambia, and many other parts of Africa, draconian press regulations have driven some of the best reporters out of that small West African state.
Journalists have had their lives threatened. One has been assassinated. Others have been detained or gone missing.
A report written for Commonwealth leaders and already circulated to various Club activists in London and elsewhere, says that the ten-member Eminent Persons group warns the Club that it risks becoming "irrelevant” unless “urgent reforms” are introduced.
“Complacency and inertia in vital aspects of the Commonwealth’s values pose the most serious threats to the continued relevance and vitality of the Commonwealth itself,” the report warns.
Trevor Grundy writes: It’s easy to talk about gay rights in London. Try it in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria or Gambia.
I was massively impressed in August this year when I interviewed a former judge Almamy Fanding Taal in Banjul who told me in the sight of the Minister for Information and the Minister for Foreign Affairs – on the record and in a firm, loud, clear and very courageous voice: "I think everyone has the right to determine his/her orientation whether it is religion, sexual or ideological.”
He said that it’s now time for the Gambian Government to re-examine all laws pertaining to homosexuality and throw out all forms or discrimination when it comes to sexuality.
“It is high time Gambia revises all its laws on homosexuality. As far as full human rights for everyone are concerned, we have no time to waste. I think the time is always now. Every human right that has been given, or guaranteed, by my government should be respected. The President has expressed strong opposition to homosexuality because that’s what the law tells him to do.”
When I asked Lord Black of Brentwood how the Commonwealth could discipline President Jammeh for making such vile suggestions about what he’d like to do to gays – chop their heads off – while not risking losing Gambia to the Commonwealth, he smiled and said – “Ah, that’s the $64,000 question.”