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We are no longer in the British Empire: It’s up to us to make gay sex legal

We are no longer in the British Empire: It’s up to us to make gay sex legal

Edwin Sesange's group protest ahead of CHOGM.

The Commonwealth is a mess. Thanks to the ‘British Empire’ and their evangelists, 40 countries now criminalize homosexuality with punishment ranging from imprisonment to whipping to death.

Those are the laws that many people believe that homophobic attitudes and laws are intrinsic to their culture, but is instead a colonial hangover.

What was done decades ago has created mob violence, the rape and murder of LGBTI people, and gay, lesbian, bi and trans people are consistently denied employment, housing and medical care. They face imprisonment, torture and abuse. It means we will never be able to end the HIV and AIDS crisis in the countries where it is the worst.

Just yesterday, my home country – Uganda – passed a bill aimed at banning LGBTI organizations, including those fighting HIV.

For the members of the Out and Proud Diamond Group, all this is not some distant terror but a very real part of our lives and memories. Many of us are living as refugees having fled Commonwealth countries which persecute LGBTIs.

But the Commonwealth and this weekend’s meeting represent a real opportunity to raise these issues.

In Britain, an equal member but also an influential leader in the Commonwealth, the public often underestimates its influence. In fact members like Uganda, Nigeria and India – where homosexuality is criminalized – tend to see it as highly important.

Many world leaders who are not even part of the Commonwealth believe it could be hugely influential in delivering change. For example, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have urged New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to highlight climate change issues at the meeting. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and French President François Hollande will be in Malta, despite neither being formal members of the group.

The Commonwealth is in a stronger position than ever before on the international scene. It makes up a quarter of the membership in the United Nations, it currently has four members on the UN Security Council, and five of its countries are in the G20. Members have proven trade benefits in their dealings with each other. No wonder countries are queuing up to join this institution.

Britain, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – with enlightened laws on LGBTI issues – will all be at the meeting in Malta. Indeed, Gay Star News revealed yesterday that UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants to raise the criminalization of homosexuality at the meeting, as it is a personal priority for him.

So there is potential. But the Commonwealth has failed, in its 66-year history, to make any meaningful progress on decriminalizing homosexuality, despite the scale of the problem it faces.

Non-discrimination of the basis of a person’s sexuality or gender is actually enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter of 2013. But most countries which signed that charter have simply ignored that.

Why has this institution failed to take a stand against members that persecute their own LGBTI citizens?

It is not as if they are powerless. The Commonwealth was a key player in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. It has punished countries over human rights abuses in the past. Nigeria was suspended between 11 November 1995 and 29 May 1999, following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa. Zimbabwe was suspended due to land reforms and Pakistan was also suspended due to a military coup.

As a gay Ugandan, I would prefer my country stayed in the Commonwealth rather than out, for now. Inside, we can use international influence to encourage decriminalization.

But we have to understand how to make that happen.

In the past it’s been suggested that Britain should lead on this. South Africa, as an African country with a strong constitution, could also play a large role, as it has in the United Nations in pushing for a report on LGBT citizens worldwide.

All that is to be welcomed. But is only part of the picture.

LGBTI equality can not be imposed on Africa and Asia in the same way the sodomy laws were forced on us by Britain. The people themselves must demand it.

We must find new and better ways to engage LGBTIs and our allies in all Commonwealth nations and beyond. We need to encourage business to use its voice, as decriminalization is essential for economic development.

The theme of CHOGM 2015 is Adding Global Value. It seeks to unify the Commonwealth behind an ambitious policy agenda gives young people ‘a life of liberty, dignity and prosperity’. But there is no way that can be achieved if LGBTI citizens are left behind.

Decriminalization in the Commonwealth will trigger change around the world. It is an opportunity we simply cannot afford to miss and a goal we should all commit ourselves to.

Edwin Sesange is director of the African LGBTI organization, Out and Proud Diamond Group.