Gay rights: the elephant in the room for the Commonwealth?

Stuart Connick

In 2013, India’s Supreme Court chose to reinstate a colonial-era law making homosexuality illegal and punishable by up to ten years in jail. 

While this was a huge setback for gay rights in India, it also has some major implications for the Commonwealth. In March 2013, Commonwealth countries unanimously adopted the Commonwealth Charter; affirming a commitment to the “protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights”, and agreeing not to discriminate against their citizens based on “gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”. 

It is clear that there are vastly differing views to homosexuality among Commonwealth citizens, and these are often religiously and culturally rooted. The Commonwealth prides itself on diversity, but the issue of criminalisation can and should be seen through a different lens: human rights. 

The detention, harassment and torture of any human being based solely on their identity should always be unacceptable and indeed has been declared so by all Commonwealth countries. Nevertheless, a recent report by the Kaleidoscope Trust has highlighted the fact that 41 out of 53 Commonwealth members criminalise homosexuality. 

With the recent news from India, this number climbs to 42. Taking into account India’s population, this means that it is now illegal for 92 per cent of Commonwealth citizens to be homosexual. Maintaining this legislation not only damages an individual state’s credibility on human rights, but it also harms the Commonwealth, which will no doubt be facing more accusations that the actions of its states do not appear to align with the values set out in its charter. 

Russia’s treatment of its LGBT community has been in the spotlight recently. This conversation, started around the Sochi Olympics, has already spread to include Commonwealth countries, many of which, unlike Russia, routinely speak the language of human rights. The Secretary General’s recent statement on this issue suggests that silence will no longer be an option. How Commonwealth countries deal with this coming to the fore could be critical for the continued relevance of the association. 

See Peter Tatchell’s comments on the Kaleidoscope Trust report here: 

About the author:

Stuart Connick, public affairs officer, Royal Commonwealth Society


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