Politics // Glasgow 2014: Human Rights and the Commonwealth

Glasgow 2014

Well, the Commonwealth Games have come to Glasgow.  The sun is shining and the city is buzzing. The Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which took place a few short months ago in Russia, are already a distant memory. But, just as the subject of equal rights was a key issue then, so the same subject has been discussed in the lead up to Glasgow 2014.

In Sochi, anti-gay laws had been passed in Russia a short time before the start of the Winter Olympics, bringing the issue sharply in to focus as the world watched. In Scotland, the situation is very different; earlier this year, the equal marriage bill was passed in the Scottish Parliament. Undoubtedly, people in Scotland are still suffering from discrimination – for example, 70% LGBT young people report being bullied in school – but it’s clear that when it comes to sexuality, we have more rights here than they do in Russia.

The same cannot be said for the various countries of the Commonwealth. For example, in recent months, the governments of Nigeria and Uganda have toughened their anti-gay laws. Now, gay people in Nigeria can face prison sentences of 14 years. In Uganda, they can face a life sentence. In fact, homosexual relationships are illegal in 41 of the 53 Commonwealth Countries, most of whom are currently being represented in Glasgow.

It’s always strange to me when people plead that sports and politics should be kept separate, but it’s particularly rich when this is asked of the Commonwealth Games, seeing as it was for political reasons that the Commonwealth was established in the first place. According to the Commonwealth Charter, the organisation aims to promote and develop democracy and human rights. Asccording to some, however, it’s failing miserably. Although the Commonwealth did play a part in the fight against apartheid in South Africa (which tends to get bigged up and rolled out pretty often – see later in the article), it hasn’t said or done much about human rights abuses across Commonwealth since then. For this reason, more and more people are questioning what the Commonwealth actually stands for and what function it serves in the 21st century.

There were heated discussions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, back in October 2011, when the Eminent Persons’ Group report, “A Commonwealth for the People: Time for Urgent Reform” was debated. The group made many recommendations regarding the development of human rights, but these were not approved at the meeting. The delegates from the UK, Canada and Australia were particularly unhappy with the situation, with UK representative Malcolm Rifkind calling the refused to approve and publish the report “a disgrace”. Canada’s Hugh Segal commented, “Clearly there are some people at this meeting for whom silence is the best option. Would silence have been a way to bring apartheid to an end?”  (What did I tell you?)

It will be of little surprise to anyone, then, that the same complaints about the Commonwealth surfaced a year late, at CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka. Many voiced the opinion that the organisation was far too weak in its position on human rights, and that it had no real use or influence in the Commonwealth countries themselves, let alone in the wider world. Indeed, it was felt by some that Sri Lanka’s hosting of the meeting was an outrage in itself, mired as the government was (and still is) in accusations of human rights abuses and war crimes against the country’s Tamil population.

After yet another controversial CHOGM, the question was raised again as to whether or not it was even appropriate for the Commonwealth to still exist, over fifty years after the breaking up of the British Empire.  Currently, LGBT rights campaigners are converging on Glasgow to take a stand against the Commonwealth’s tolerance of state-sponsored homophobia. But with the Games kicking off this week, what, if anything, can be done to address these issues?

When this was discussed the spring, MSPs James Dornan and Patrick Harvie advocated discussion and communication over big political actions. Writing in the Pink News, Dornan said,

“Scotland has not always been the bastion of equality that it is today […] We have made remarkable progress – the latest being the equal marriage legislation – and our society is much better off as a result of it. Whilst we do have more work to do in changing attitudes, I want to share that story with the Ugandan High Commission when she is in Glasgow. I want to show her that all of us benefit when LGBT people are treated equally, and how society is the better for it.”

Havie’s message was similar when he spoke on Scotland Tonight around the same time:

“If we want to achieve a world in which all people have their dignity, their human rights respected, and a culture of equality, we should recognise we’ve got a very long way to go there. Scotland has made the journey. Let’s tell our story and build real lasting links with activists in those countries.”

The question is, will people in Nigeria or Uganda, or the other countries of the Commonwealth, want to listen to us? After all, most of the anti-gay laws throughout the Commonwealth were established when those countries were governed by Britain. With the strong whiff of hypocrisy hanging in the air, and the shadow of the Empire still falling over much of the Commonwealth, is it possible to have a meaningful discussion on the important subject of human rights?

That depends who’s leading the discussion. Though Scotland is playing host at Glasgow 2014, our voice shouldn’t be the loudest in the debate, nor our stories at its heart. Already, politicians in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere have characterised equal rights as a Western ideology and the campaign for gay rights as neo-imperial imposition of Western values.

That version of events is dismissed by many campaigners in Africa an elsewhere. Equal marriage laws exist in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa, as well as in 10 European countries, in Canada and in New Zealand. In fact, the passing of the equal marriage bill in New Zealand was largely due to the efforts of Māori MP Louisa Wall, and was strongly supported by the two Māori parties and by other prominent Māori MPs like Metiria Turei and Tau Henare. When the vote was approved in parliament, the Māori love song Pokarekare Ana was sung in the chamber.

There are many people throughout all the Commonwealth countries who are speaking out and fighting against anti-gay laws. There are activists like Bisi Alimi, originally from Nigeria but now living in the UK and still very involved in the equal rights struggle. There are even world-famous writers speaking out on the subject, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, also from Nigeria, or Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainana. Instead of telling our own story, why not give them the opportunity to speak on the subject at the Commonwealth Games?

Many of the wounds inflicted by the British Empire have yet to heal, but as we saw from the way it handled the recent case regarding the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the 50s, the Westminster government prefers not to talk about its past. If they really wanted to have an effective debate on human rights with our Commonwealth “partner” countries, Scottish politicians should be questioning what the Commonwealth is and what it stands for. As we rediscover ourself as an independent country – in spirit, if not in reality (yet) – we should be speaking openly about what happened under the Empire, and building new relationships with countries around the world that are based on something other than a shared, painful, imperial history.

This article was originally written in Gaelic and published here by the Gaelic online magazine, Dàna, which I co-edit.

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