Skip to main content

Commonwealth: Decriminalising Homosexuality

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in decriminalising homosexuality in Commonwealth countries since the Prime Minister became the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office.

My Lords, at last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the Prime Minister announced a £5.6 million programme to assist member states seeking to reform legislation that discriminates on the grounds of sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. Several countries have expressed interest in this offer and the UK is supporting them while respecting their request for sensitivity. Three countries—Trinidad and Tobago, India and Botswana—have made progress on decriminalisation.

My Lords, that is indeed good news. In the years ahead, will it not be important to remember the Prime Minister’s statement in 2018 that the British Government have a special responsibility to help Commonwealth countries get rid of anti-gay laws? While there has been recent progress, as my noble friend said, in India last year and Botswana this year, should we also not remember the many countries where there is terrible oppression? An example is Uganda, where violently homophobic debates occupying nearly 50 days of parliamentary time have taken place since 2014, which is designed to buttress and strengthen cruel anti-gay laws.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s comments, and I am sure he will agree with me that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has prioritised this issue not just at the Commonwealth summit but subsequently. I am sure the House will join me in thanking her for the important progress we have seen on this important human rights issue. My noble friend is right to draw attention to parts of the Commonwealth where suppression and persecution of the LGBT community is very much in evidence. We continue to work bilaterally to raise these issues of concern. I have had various discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on this issue, and his idea of having champion countries in different parts of the world is something I am pursuing with colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I look forward to working with Members of your Lordships’ House in further strengthening our work in this area.

My Lords, is not one of the reasons for this very harsh treatment of this community in Commonwealth countries the attitude of the churches, which in a country such as Uganda are very reactionary? The representatives of the churches in this House are civilised and enlightened people. Could one perhaps request them to use their influence in this direction?

I am also the Prime Minister’s envoy on freedom of religion or belief. Religion or faith is for all of humanity and, whatever faith it may be, it teaches not just tolerance but understanding and respect for the rights of others. I talked of working with your Lordships’ House, which includes the Spiritual Benches. I know that the Church of England is playing a very important role in promoting understanding and respect for all people across the Commonwealth, including the LGBT community.

My Lords, the Commonwealth charter was signed by all members in 2013. It states that all parties are committed to non-discrimination, although it does not specifically mention sexual orientation. No CHOGM communication has mentioned LGBT rights since then, and it is doubtful whether they are going to be on the Rwanda CHOGM agenda. What will the Government do to raise this issue and make sure it is covered?

The noble Lord is right: it was not in the last communiqué or the one before that, and it is unlikely to be in the Kigali one because, as he will know, the Commonwealth takes decisions and issues communiqués with unanimity and consensus across all 53 member states. However, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister illustrated during the plenary session of the London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, there are opportunities specifically to raise these issues, and we will certainly explore opportunities to do the same in Kigali.

My Lords, are the Government aware that the Government of the Maldives are keen to apply for fast-tracked readmittance to the Commonwealth? Given that their engagement on issues is helpful and that there are many other positive reasons, are the Government minded to support their application, ideally to be in place before the CHOGM 2020?

We of course welcome the application from the Maldives, and I have met the Maldives Foreign Minister. Their application is being processed and we all hope that it will be finalised in time for Kigali 2020.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a devastating link between criminalisation and the spread of HIV? A survey of Caribbean countries revealed starkly that rates of HIV infection among MSM are four times higher in those that criminalise homosexuality than in those that do not. It is a damning statistic. Does my noble friend agree that decriminalisation is therefore not just a moral but a public health and safety imperative?

My Lords, the noble Lord kindly mentioned the need for other voices from other countries, but there is also a very strong economic case for diversity and inclusion. Certainly, many global companies have adopted very positive policies on inclusion and diversity. Can he tell us what the FCO is doing to raise this issue with other departments, particularly those responsible for trade, to ensure that trade envoys and others make a positive case for diversity and inclusion so that we encourage investment and a change in the law?

I assure the noble Lord that I regularly raise every element of human rights in my interactions with Ministers in other departments, particularly those with a trade focus. As we leave the European Union, we are looking at the importance of retaining a strong voice on human rights in future trade agreements, and I will continue to make that case across government.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one difficulty here is the inheritance of Empire? When I chaired the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we went to Delhi to talk to the commission on equality and human rights there and we mentioned the legislation on gay rights. The answer was emphatic: “We got this legislation from you, and we’re grateful”.

The noble Baroness is right to raise that. I think that the legislation has been tested recently, and we should welcome the review of the courts. Regarding the legacy of the old British Empire, particularly where India is concerned, speaking as the son of Indian parents who now represents the British Government, I think that we have laid that one to rest.