LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth – a Public Engagement.

In the context of the forthcoming Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Dr. Matthew Waites discusses current debates over sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights, and introduces a conference in the University of Glasgow’s Commonwealth events programme cwealth_rights_72rgb-e1401801268940

As the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games approach, commencing from 23rd July, issues of human rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity (‘SOGI’) are being foregrounded in public debates by a number of political actors. The passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 in Uganda, together with growing recognition of existing and new criminalisations more widely in Africa, India and elsewhere, has led to considerable UK media and public interest in the potential role of the Commonwealth in advancing human rights. A critical publicly engaged sociology is needed for the analytical perspective to make sense of these developments. The LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth conference at University of Glasgow on 18th July will provide a forum for discussion of these issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people – led by Equality Network and co-organised by myself on behalf of Glasgow Human Rights Network, with partners including Pride Glasgow (ahead of Pride in Glasgow on 19 July) and the Kaleidoscope Trust.

My own engagement with the Commonwealth in relation to these issues began with participation in a conference at Institute of Commonwealth Studies in 2011, which led to co-editing with Corinne Lennox of the book Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change (London: School of Advanced Study, 2013) – available free online as a resource. The book offers data on laws in all Commonwealth states, with chapters by academics and activists covering 16 states in particular – United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Uganda, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas – and comparative analysis (Facebook site). Introductory overviews are given in filmed presentations from book launches in Toronto and London.   An insight which particularly emerges is that human rights have been selectively claimed according to political context by LGBTI activist movements in the global South, as shown for example in Adrian Jjuuko’s chapter on Uganda. Hence if Northern-based or Commonwealth-oriented transnational activism demands rights on all issues simultaneously, this creates a tension with national movements, even if a necessary one.

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At recent international conferences such as Orientations and Identities hosted by University of Southern California, and Causes Sexuelles hosted by University Lausanne, the contentiousness of human rights in relation to ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ (‘SOGI’) or ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex’ (‘LGBTI) – among other possible rubrics and acronyms – has been debated, with transnational strategies explored. What emerges is a growing consensus in favour of human rights among Southern LGBTI movements, already embodied in the South African constitution’s Bill of Rights with its equality clause refering to sexual orientation, but also notable for example in the Coalition of African Lesbians stance in favour of bodily autonomy for all. But concern among transnational activists and academics working on these issues is shifting to what some such as Dennis Altman characterise as a ‘polarising’ process (though not necessarily North/South), and a particular worry about the manner in which states on both sides are strategically and cynically mobilising arguments for or against SOGI human rights as part of their wider domestic and international political strategies.

Professor Christine Delphy and Dr. Matthew Waites, opening plenary speakers at the recent conference 'Causes Sexuelles: Sexualités et Mobilisations Collectives', University of Lausanne, Switzerland, 5-7 June 2014.
Professor Christine Delphy and Dr. Matthew Waites, opening plenary speakers at the recent conference ‘Causes Sexuelles: Sexualités et Mobilisations Collectives’, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, 5-7 June 2014.

In this light the politics of using the Commonwealth remains a contested, under-explored and unresolved issue. My impression is that for many UK LGBT activists including those in leading positions in NGOs, the Commonwealth is assumed as a largely unproblematic forum through which to press for human rights. Even though the Commonwealth did not include fundamental human rights in its core statement of Principles in the Singapore Declaration of 1971, the very recent creation of the Charter of the Commonwealth in 2013 – which includes human rights together with values such as democracy and peace – is seen as creating an institutional framework for LGBT politics to utilise. But a critical sociological perspective reminds us that the structured global economic inequalities shaped by colonialism remain – one thing the Commonwealth lacks is common wealth. Hence selective invocations of human rights by Northern politicians, which focus on LGBT human rights as apparently cost-free moral issues, occur at the neglect of a more genuinely universal human rights politics, which would also focus on economic and social rights such as the rights to social security, right to work, and to just and favourable remuneration, right to social security, rights to education, rights to health etc (Universal Declaration of Human Rights , Articles 22, 23, 25, 26).

By contrast among US and French queer academics there is still a process of awakening to the sudden appearance of the Commonwealth as a significant international political opportunity structure newly in the sights of LGBT campaigners – notably former Australian Justice Michael Kirby, who has served in the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group. US transnational queer thinkers do not know quite what to make of it, but they know that British colonialism was no tea party. The situation has not been helped by the relative isolation of UK LGBT academics and NGOs; Stonewall for many years did not work much on international issues, and only with the development of Kaleidoscope has this been changing, especially recently. Equality Network in Scotland has also recently been engaging internationally.

Hence for myself as an academic engaging with activists including in UK-based LGBT NGOs, a key task has been to contribute to communicating how things are seen from outside the UK, and to express and make visible ways in which British imperialism’s legal, social and economic legacies continue to structure unequal North/South power relations in the Commonwealth context.   This means that those arguing for LGBTI human rights in the Commonwealth should not imagine they are simply working within existing institutions, but rather should imagine themselves as involved in a process of a politically risky and uncertain process of reimagining and reinventing the Commonwealth itself. With speakers at the forthcoming conference planned to include Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Mayur Suresh involved in the Supreme Court case against Section 377 from India, Shanon Shah on Malaysia and Monica Tabengwa of Human Rights Watch from Botswana, the appropriate role of the Commonwealth itself should be on the table for discussion.

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Matthew Waites is Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, and a member of the Gender and Sexualities Forum (Twitter @MatthewWaites).