The Commonwealth’s highest ranking civil officer used his opening address at a forum for foreign law ministers to reiterate that there can be no place for sexual orientation discrimination in the Commonwealth.
Speaking ahead of a week-long conference on Wednesday, Secretary General of the Commonwealth Kamalesh Sharma chose to discuss how “vilification and targeting on ground of sexual orientation are at odds with the values of the Commonwealth.”
Relevant excerpts from Sharma’s address as they appear on the Commonwealth website are posted below:
Another example of a contemporary Commonwealth challenge to be addressed is in the area of sexual orientation. Our shared commitment, reaffirmed at CHOGM 2009, is to ‘rights for all without discrimination on any grounds’ and opposition to stigmatisation and victimisation. But progress has been uneven towards ensuring that domestic legislation reflects our belief that vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with the fundamental values of the Commonwealth.
In my public pronouncements I have pointed out that many member countries are challenged with reconciling Commonwealth principles of dignity, equality and non-discrimination, as well as the Commonwealth value of respect for fundamental human rights, on one hand, with issues of unjust criminalisation found in the colonial legacy of domestic legislation in this area, on the other.
Ministerial reflection on this discrepancy could suggest avenues of moving forward in national circumstances. The judiciary offers another avenue. Only two or three weeks ago, in the UK, a judge’s interpretation of the legislation governing bail conditions caused an immediate reconsideration: the law hadn’t changed but the contemporary understanding of it had. And the adjustments required now through legislation, regulation and the like, are aimed at achieving a new balance that reflects our times. Similarly, in that area of sexual discrimination, change has been possible that reinforces Commonwealth values — not through a political path or a vocal public path, but through a thoughtful and measured judicial path. I have therefore drawn public attention to progress, such as at the landmark decision by the Delhi High Court to decriminalise homosexual acts, based on the argument of inconsistencies that have been alluded to.
Making an impact, making a difference, is what the Commonwealth is about. Our overriding aim must be to provide a legal framework that has a positive influence on the life choices available to our citizens. Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen, who chaired the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding, and is a good friend of the Commonwealth, developed what he called a ‘Capability Approach.’ This stresses the importance not only of how human beings can function in theory, but of their having a practical choice, the capability, to function in certain ways if they so wish in practice. We can be deprived of such capabilities in many ways — through prejudice, through ignorance or through lack of resources. Professor Sen helped us to see that to be deprived of practical choice in our lives in any of these or other ways, or — as is particularly relevant to this conference — through oppressive government and oppressive laws, is indeed poverty.
The theme for the forum is “Fostering a Just and Secure Commonwealth.” A wide range of issues will be discussed include climate change, independence of the judiciary, weapons and international law, forced marriage, cybercrime, combating corruption, a world view on human rights, prosecution disclosure, practices in correctional facilities, and human trafficking as well as many other topics.
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