Often, when I talk about striving to make human rights progress within the Commonwealth, I’m met with raised eyebrows. The Commonwealth? I’ll hear, is that really the right place to be pushing for progress?
It’s a healthy scepticism I come across time and time again, especially from those who are well-versed in the long-lasting impact of the British Empire on its former colonial subjects. The Commonwealth, for many, feels like a vestige of a foregone time, a time in which certain countries were under the thumb of others, a time where the imposition of British law and values upon a litany of diverse and distinct cultures went largely unscrutinised by the global community. And so, the Commonwealth’s origin story, and the fact that its existence cannot be uncoupled from the legacy of empire, continues to ring loud in the ears of many. Especially those who are still dealing with inherited colonial laws that expressly discriminate against certain communities.
‘For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens’
It was in this light that the Commonwealth Foundation held the first of its Critical Conversations series, bringing together a diverse array of thinkers and doers to examine the Commonwealth’s past and reimagine its future. It was a chance to have an honest conversation about the legacy of the Commonwealth while also discussing its potential as a space for progress, where decision-makers and activists can come together and challenge each other to create a fairer and more positive future.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, the Commonwealth has proven itself as a useful space for civil society organisations to come together and advocate for positive change. This wasn’t necessarily a view shared by all panellists, but it is a truth I have seen in action. As Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, the United Kingdom’s leading international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) human rights organisation, I have found that the organising done to create awareness and advocate on LGBT+ human rights issues at Commonwealth-specific fora, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), has often had a resounding impact.
The work of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), a network of 62 LGBT+ organisations across the Commonwealth, for which Kaleidoscope Trust acts as Secretariat, is a testament to this. TCEN aims to create a positive and more equal future for LGBT+ citizens in the Commonwealth, in a context where 34 of 54 Member States criminalise homosexuality as a direct result of inherited colonial-era laws. For LGBT+ activists in the Commonwealth, an acknowledgement of the past was the first step toward envisioning a more equal future. And so TCEN went about advocating for this exact thing—a statement of acknowledgement and regret from the UK government.
The network achieved this primarily by centring the voices of young grassroots activists in our advocacy both before and during CHOGM 2018, which was held in London. This simple act, of creating opportunities for the lived realities of LGBT+ people to be heard in high-level diplomatic spaces, was enormously impactful.
It included creating a platform for Melusi Simelane, a young gay man from eSwatini, to talk about the safety and security of LGBT+ people in his country at the Committee of the Whole, during an event for Commonwealth accredited civil society organisations to present priorities relating to CHOGM to high-level Commonwealth officials. It also included working with the Commonwealth Foundation to ensure Zeleca Julien, a lesbian activist from Trinidad and Tobago, was able to speak about her experiences fighting for equality at the opening plenary of the Women’s Forum at CHOGM 2018, the first time an LGBT+ person was granted the opportunity to do so.
Beyond these specific examples, we also aimed for as much LGBT+ civil society representation as possible at Commonwealth events. CHOGM, for example, is a unique opportunity for LGBT+ organisations to come face to face with diplomatic or parliamentary representatives from their countries or regions, an opportunity that few other diplomatic spaces provide. Where they might not be able to safely do so in their own countries, representatives of TCEN organisations were able to hold their national-level parliamentary representatives to account within a Commonwealth space.
TCEN is one of many examples of how the Commonwealth can be used as a force for good, particularly for the LGBT+ community. But TCEN is only the beginning. As our work has continued, we have sought to ensure we are building a more intersectional human rights movement in the Commonwealth, working with youth organisations and those fighting for women and girls rights to make sure that the progress we achieve can also support the aims of other marginalised groups.
For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens—and that includes examining the mistakes of the past, mistakes that have led to staggering inequalities, and aiming to rectify them accordingly. So long as the Commonwealth can continue to create spaces for the likes of TCEN to make their voices heard, it deserves to be championed as a promising avenue for real progress.
Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (Lady Phyll) is Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust.