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Sri Lanka gays forced underground as world leaders gather for summit

Commonwealth leaders have refused to discuss LGBTI issues at their summit in Colombo and now the Sri Lankan government is cracking down on dissent
Protestors outside Commonwealth HQ in London campaign against LGBTI rights abuses.
Photo by Peter Tatchell Human Rights Foundation.

Sri Lankan gay activists have been threatened and ordered to keep silent as Commonwealth leaders gather in the country.

The LGBTI campaigners say they have been forced underground, reflecting a wider crackdown on civil society ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) from tomorrow (15 November).

Commonwealth leaders have refused to discuss gay, trans and intersex issues at the summit – despite the fact 80% of member countries still criminalize homosexuality.

GSN has learned Sri Lankan activists have been warned to stop their activities ahead of CHOGM.

Some individuals have been threatened and told they may be in danger if they do not comply.

As a result, they have been forced to shelve the idea of holding an event alongside the summit, highlighting LGBTI rights concerns in Commonwealth nations.

The Sri Lankan LGBTI activists don’t want to reveal any more details of the threats against them, for fear of angering the government and putting themselves at more risk.

The former head of human rights at the Commonwealth, Purna Sen, had already accused the Lankan government of ‘unacceptable harassment’ of activists and organizations campaigning for LGBTI rights.

Amnesty International says there’s a wider crackdown on freedom of speech, claiming Sri Lanka’s army blocked family members of ‘disappeared’ people from attending a human rights vigil in Colombo.

Steve Crawshaw, representing Amnesty International during CHOGM, said of this incident: ‘It fits a familiar pattern in Sri Lanka, where the government has in recent years done everything in its power to silence dissent.

‘It is notable that the Commonwealth has been shamefully silent throughout this, and has yet to condemn the human rights violations that are still so clearly business as usual for Sri Lanka.’

Meanwhile international LGBTI activists have condemned the Commonwealth for refusing to discuss LGBTI issues, despite widespread persecution.

Homosexuality is illegal in 41 of the 53 member nations, with life in jail as the maximum sentence in six: Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana.

A Commonwealth Charter agreed earlier this year commits members to honoring human rights but most have failed to act.

Protestors rallied outside the Commonwealth’s London HQ yesterday (13 November).

Nearly half of those joining the protest were from Commonwealth countries still criminalizing homosexuality and a third were LGBTI refugees.

One activist there, Edwin Sesange, director of the African LGBTI Out and Proud Diamond Group, said: ‘Although the Secretary General of the Commonwealth continues to condemn homophobia, we are calling for action.

‘Countries that persecute LGBT people – such as Uganda, Cameroon and Nigeria – should be suspended from the Commonwealth.

‘Homophobia and transphobia are violations of human rights and should be raised at the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka.

‘No future Commonwealth meeting should be held in a country that persecutes LGBT people or violates other human rights.’

Veteran activist Peter Tatchell, proposed a four point plan to bring Commonewalth countries into line with their human rights commitments.

He said: ‘Commonwealth member states should honor the principles of the Commonwealth Charter.

‘This means: 1) Decriminalization of homosexuality; 2) Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; 3) Enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBTI people from hate crimes; and 4) Government consultation and dialogue with LGBTI organizations.’

Meanwhile the Kaleidoscope Trust UK has published a report highlighting the LGBTI rights situation in all member nations ahead of the meeting.

Alistair Stewart, assistant director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, described the situation and the Commonwealth’s failure to act as a ‘stain on an organization supposedly committed to equal rights for all’.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has chosen to stay away from CHOGM over Sri Lanka’s human rights concerns. And other leaders, from the UK to Malaysia, have also faced calls for a boycott.

The summit will run until Sunday (17 October).

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