Skip to main content

Justin Trudeau is determined to advance LGBT rights in the Commonwealth. It will be no easy task to change attitudes in one of the world's most homophobic institutions.

But there are encouraging signs. Much will depend on a vote in London in June.

Thirty-six of the Commonwealth's 52 nations, representing two billion people, criminalize homosexual activity. Penalties range from jail time to execution. Even in countries where the laws aren't strictly enforced, just having them on the books encourages a climate of violence, including murder – which often goes unpunished – and "corrective rape." Intolerance, persecution and ignorance increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. More than two million are infected in India alone.

Story continues below advertisement

While the United Nations and the Organization of American States condemn violence against sexual minorities, the Commonwealth remains silent on the issue, with many of its members opposed to any concessions.

But Randy Boissonnault, an MP who is Mr. Trudeau's special adviser on LGBT issues, has a mandate to advance sexual minority rights internationally. Canada is working with the United Kingdom to promote those rights within the Commonwealth. One key advance would be obtaining accreditation for the Commonwealth Equality Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the rights of sexual minorities, when the Board of Governors meets in London in June.

But the situation is delicate. "The global North can't just go storming into the global South," Mr. Boissonnault said in an interview. "We have to work through our allies."

Then-British prime minister David Cameron probably did more harm than good in 2011, when he threatened to cut foreign-aid funding to countries that discriminated against homosexuals. A better approach, which Canada and the U.K. are jointly pursuing, is to fund local organizations that advocate for same-sex equality, to raise the issue with heads of government in private meetings, to invite LGBT activists from developing countries to Commonwealth summits and generally to employ carrots rather than sticks.

After all, observes Lewis Brooks, who is head of research at the Royal Commonwealth Society in London, Britain imposed sodomy and gross indecency laws on its former colonies in the 19th century. "For the U.K. and other Western countries to turn round and try and impose the reverse is not appropriate, has moral questions around it, and is likely to get a whole range of countries to backlash against it," he said in an interview.

There are incremental signs of progress. On Monday, Commonwealth Day, Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta and the current Commonwealth chair, declared in a speech at Westminster Abbey that a lack of respect for sexual minorities was "a considerable blot" on the Commonwealth's reputation.

"There are leaders who know things must change, but are wary of how society would react to their first move," he said. " To them I say that the Commonwealth will be with them to help them make the first bold steps." Malta, a traditionally conservative society, has made great progress in recent years in protecting same-sex and transgender rights.

Story continues below advertisement

The Supreme Court struck down the anti-sodomy law in Belize in 2016. Malawi suspended its anti-sodomy law in 2012. The Indian Supreme Court is reviewing the law that criminalizes homosexuality. If it rules it unconstitutional, 1.3 billion of the two billion Commonwealth citizens who live under the burden of that law would be released from it.

Justin Trudeau publicly promoted the rights of women and sexual minorities at La Francophonie last November in Madagascar. He will do the same at the Commonwealth meeting in London next year. But the most effective lobbying will be done quietly, in the corridors: offering help to any country that wants to update its criminal code, introducing activists to politicians, reminding heads of government that all Western nations are more generous with their aid to countries that treat their citizens fairly.

Such an approach is not glamorous. But it's more likely to get the job done.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter