Ten years ago, on 11th March 2013, Queen Elizabeth II formally signed the Commonwealth Charter. This document set out the principles, values and aspirations that would unite the Commonwealth and guide its work going forward.
The Charter contains strong commitments to democracy, human rights, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression and gender equality. It also formally recognises the role that civil society plays in communities and countries as partners in promoting and supporting Commonwealth values. While the aspirations and visions expressed through the Charter are welcome, the question remains: has the Charter made a difference? And if progress has been made, then how far are we from the ideals it encapsulates being realised?
The charity I lead, Kaleidoscope Trust, works across the Commonwealth to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI+) people. We were set up in recognition both that much of the persecution, discrimination and violence faced by LGBTI+ people across the Commonwealth originates from the United Kingdom’s colonial period, and that Commonwealth structures have the potential to be powerful tools to address this.
The Commonwealth Charter states:
We emphasise the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies, and recall that respect for the dignity of all human beings is critical to promoting peace and prosperity.
We accept that diversity and understanding the richness of our multiple identities are fundamental to the Commonwealth’s principles and approach.
This commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding is a goal we should aspire to across global society. But the fact that thirty-two Commonwealth countries continue to criminalise consensual same-sex relationships must be addressed.
Of course, it is important that we celebrate when progress is made. Since the Charter was signed a decade ago, eleven Commonwealth countries in all regions have decriminalised homosexuality, four of them just last year.
But we have also seen setbacks where other countries have sought to further penalise and criminalise LGBTI+ people:just this week the Parliament in Uganda has passed a bill which, if signed into law by the president, will mean that even identifying as LGBTI+ could lead to prosecution and imprisonment. Developments like this are shocking to us all and are devastating for the brave LGBTI+ rights activists in countries like Uganda who are literally putting their lives on the line to try to effect change.
Much more needs to be done to ensure the human rights of LGBT+ people are not ignored with respect to the values of the Commonwealth Charter – especially given the rise in LGBTI+ sentiments we are now seeing.
Nearly one-third of the world’s citizens live in Commonwealth countries. If we can truly make the ideals of the Commonwealth Charter a reality, the impact would be profound and could drive legal, policy and social norm changes in every corner of the globe, genuinely ensuring that no one is left behind.
In order to do this, I think we need to both strengthen the Charter’s language and its effectiveness.
The charter recognises that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights. Similar specificity could be applied to LGBTI+ rights, sending a loud message to LGBTI+ people everywhere that they too have human rights and that they are seen – and serve as a reminder to member states of their responsibilities towards their LGBTI+ citizens.
The Commonwealth rightly has a focus on youth this year. Indeed, more than 60% of people living in the Commonwealth are under 30 years of age. These young people are our collective future, and it is vital that these new generations do not grow up facing discrimination, stigma and criminalisation. Empowering the Commonwealth Youth Networks to promote and address the issues that affect LGBTI+ youth would send a strong signal that we want all Commonwealth citizens of the future to be able to lead free, safe and equal lives.
At the moment, the Charter is aspirational rather than enforceable. This is not necessarily a criticism but rather a recognition of its limitations in its current state. More could be done to strengthen the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) in order to ensure the monitoring and review of states’ human rights obligations is conducted in accordance with the values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter and commitments made in the heads of government and ministerial communiques.
The Charter rightly recognises the important role played by civil society but more could be done to strengthen this and safeguard civil society groups against state interference. The Commonwealth Foundation, which already plays a central role in the Commonwealth, should be better resourced and empowered to challenge incidents of undue state interference, for example refusal by states to register civil society organisations seeking to uphold the human rights of LGBTI+ people.
Lastly, it would be remiss not to note the international rise in anti-LGBTI+ sentiment, which has been a tremendous concern to civil society organisations across the Commonwealth. The impact of this is already being felt in some Commonwealth countries where human rights defenders are reporting a rise in violence and hate speech against LGBTI+ communities or where, instead of seeking to repeal discriminatory laws, legislators are instead seeking to further criminalise LGBTI+ people.
The challenge we have is ensuring that the principles and values enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter are not forgotten, but are instead enthusiastically adhered to.
The opportunity lies in the fact that a vision of a free and equal society has been established by the Commonwealth Charter – and that gives us all something to work towards together.