Meeting Commonwealth leaders this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed regret for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in its former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said. “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.” May added that the UK government would support reform of legislation that discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in former colonies.
It’s a welcome symbolic step towards justice for LGBT people affected by colonial-era “sodomy laws,” which had a wide-ranging impact and still exist in 36 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. The Human Rights Watch report, “This Alien Legacy”, shows how laws criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct were introduced across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, and the Caribbean under British rule, contributing to a climate of hostility against LGBT people. Human Rights Watch has documented how they still contribute to violence and discrimination against LGBT people in the Eastern Caribbean, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Kenya, Burma, Nigeria, Uganda, and Jamaica.
Recognizing the weight of historical injustice is one step towards justice for LGBT people in the Commonwealth. Elsewhere, governments have created policies compensating victims of discriminatory laws, including Germany, where the Bundestag voted to compensate gay and bisexual men convicted and imprisoned for consensual same-sex conduct, and Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for state discrimination and created a US$100 million Canadian fund to compensate former government employees.
Activists in former British colonies have gained tremendous ground, including decriminalization of consensual same-sex acts in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. In India and Kenya, courts have committed to hearing decriminalization cases.
May should urge heads of government at tomorrow’s executive session of Commonwealth leaders to reform these laws. The UK government should also support organizations that grapple with the alien legacy of criminalization, and support activists working at the grassroots to reform discriminatory laws. As colonial-era sodomy laws fall and organizations like the Commonwealth Equality Network challenge inequality based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Commonwealth leaders should take action to stop human rights abuses against LGBT people.
In recognizing the injustice inflicted by its colonial-era laws, the UK has an opportunity to make amends. The UK should work to return dignity and equality before the law to LGBT people in the Commonwealth.