Friday, 27 November 2009:
A few days ago, in the post Port of Spain day 3, I explained that I am here in Trinidad and Tobago to attend the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF), a conference of civil societry activists from around the 53-nation Commonwealth. I am here as a member of a multi-country gay caucus, our aim being to ensure that gay issues are not left out of any recommendations that Commonwealth civil society makes to the leaders of the Commonwealth member states.
The CPF concluded its work on Wednesday, 25 November, and a 38-page set of recommendations was drawn up for submission to the summit meeting. The final 38-page document was a compilation of sub-documents prepared by eight Assemblies which the CPF was divided into, each Assembly being allocated about 4 pages.
Of these eight Assemblies, gay activists were distributed into three which were relevant to us: Human Rights; Gender; and Health, HIV and Aids. Other Assemblies which we didn’t think were important for us were Democracy and Governance; Peace and Conflict; Creativity and Innovation; Environment and Climate Change; Financial Crisis and Economic Development.
The result was a satisfactory one in all three Assemblies. Gay, lesbian and transgender (GLT) concerns were strongly mentioned in the documents these three Assemblies produced. The final combined document (of all eight Assemblies of the CPF) that was submitted to the government leaders the same day, thus had GLT concerns reiterated in a number of places. From my quick reading of the entire document, I think that of the hundreds of specific concerns brought by various civil society activists to the CPF, gay and transgender concerns got the most mentions. This is not to belittle others’ concerns, but it goes to show how good organisation among us can produce results.
In the document produced by the Human Rights Assembly, which I was a part of, four paragraphs touched on gay concerns:
Paragraph 90(c) noted “an Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda that seeks to violate the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Intersex persons and sexual rights activists” as one among four worst issues. By highlighting it, the document wanted Commonwealth summit leaders to pay attention to it and lean on Uganda to abandon the measure.
Paragraphs 95(a) and 95(b) speaks out on discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.
95(a) says Commonwealth states should “recognise and protect the human rights of all individuals without discrimination on the grounds of disability, race, caste or ethnicity, sex, political opinion, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, age, national origin, economic and social status, religion, refugee or migrant status, HIV status or any other status.”
95(b) calls on member states to “repeal legislation that leads to discrimination, such as the criminalisation of same sex sexual relationships and we therefore call on the Commonwealth Foundation to facilitate a technical review of such of laws.”
You’d notice the last sentence. It proposes that the central Commonwealth body monitor each state’s observance of this call for repeal.
Not enough? Paragraph 96 calls on “Commonwealth Member States to ensure universal access to basic services for marginalised and vulnerable groups, including the homeless, stateless, the displaced, tribal and indigenous peoples, those with disabilities, and sexual and gender minorities. This includes education and training for all.”
I was asked to be the rapporteur of the Human Rights Assembly at the final plenary where the final document was stitched together. As rapporteur, I had to give a verbal summary of the proceedings and conclusions of the Human Rights Assembly to the entire CPF. Naturally, even as I was fair to other chief concerns raised in the Human Rights Assembly, e.g. rights of the disabled, I made special effort to make sure that gay issues got a strong mention in order to consolidate its inclusion in the final text. So, I’m pretty glad we succeeded.
Other members of our smallish gay, lesbian and transgender caucus made their presence felt in the Gender Assembly. They too succeeded, getting our concerns mentioned twice, and strongly, in the document produced by that Assembly.
Paragraph 65 (in the preamble to the Gender document) made clear that the word “gender” includes gays, lesbians and transgenders. It says, “gender equity implies equality for all and therefore [includes] issues related to non-normative sexualities, such as sexual and gender minorities.”
Just in case anyone missed that, there is a stand-alone paragraph, detailing the Gender Assembly’s views on this particular issue: Titled “Transgenders, Gays and Lesbians”, paragraph 70 says: “We call on Commonwealth Member States to include gender and sexuality as a specific theme on sexualities, sexual and gender minorities, related violence and discrimination, making them no longer invisible.”
Health, HIV and Aids
Our caucus representatives in the Health Assembly too succeeded in ensuring that we would be included. HIV and Aids is an epidemic crisis in many countries, from Papua New Guinea to Nigeria. Where it is not yet as widespread, it disproportionately affects men who have sex with men.
Paragraph 81(c) called on governments to “commit to and ensure the provision of sufficient human and material resources to eradicate preventable disease such as HIV and AIDS, Tuberculosis , Malaria, and debilitating lifestyle diseases such as cardio-vascular disease, hypertension, obesity and diabetes.”
It is not just medical intervention that is needed. The social obstacles must be dealt with to maximise the effectiveness of medical intervention. Thus, paragraph 88(k) says: “develop comprehensive policy instruments to address stigma and discrimination in all Commonwealth countries and legislate anti-discrimination acts in support of people with HIV by 2011.”
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For some reason, the full document is still not yet available on the Commonwealth Foundation’s website. I will let readers know when it is.
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On Tuesday evening, just as the Human Rights Assembly was winding down its work, the Director of the Commonwealth Foundation – the body convening the CPF – came for a “listening” hour. Mark Collins sat at the front to hear in an interactive way, what concerns participants at our Assembly had.
Then he stood up to proclaim that he had heard and understood what everybody had said, after which, he began to think out loud. There are lots of multi-lateral organisations in the world today dealing with human rights, he said, and there may be a duplication of efforts. In what way, he asked, can the Commonwealth distinguish itself from the others?
I quickly stood up and said, with due respect, anti-gay legislation is the obvious one. Some forty ex-British colonies, now members of the Commonwealth, continue to have anti-gay laws that the British left behind on our statute books. Ex-French colonies don’t have them, nor ex-Spanish, ex-Portuguese or ex-Dutch colonies. What better forum is there to deal with this anachronistic hold-over from British colonial rule than the Commonwealth? If you’re looking for one issue, I said to Collins, where the Commonwealth can make a unique difference on an issue that is low priority for other multi-lateral organisations, here you have it. So, focus on it.
Everybody in the gay caucus were amazed that in his rambling reply to me, he did not once mention the gay issue or the G word. Instead, he gave some utterly forgetable, anondyne comment about the importance of human rights and making a difference in the world.
I later found out from a Canadian guy who had previously interacted with the leadership of the Commonwealth Foundation that Mark Collins was widely suspected to be the chief obstacle to giving any sort of priority to the gay issue. Very often, ideas for meetings and forums devoted to this issue have been blocked by him, I am told.
Collins probably didn’t like me very much that day. Oh well, it’s all in a day’s work for an activist.