Churches defend prejudice as campaign to decriminalise homosexuality is launched

Alice Nkom, the human rights lawyer fighting the anti-gay laws in Cameroon

The Human Dignity Trust (HDT) has launched a global campaign in London today to decriminalise homosexuality in the 80-odd countries where consensual sexual activity between adults of the same gender is outlawed by embarking on a first test case in the courts of Belize.

Forty two are Commonwealth countries which inherited their statutes as a legacy of British colonial rule. In many, such as Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana the laws are seen by some as justification for violent attacks on gay and lesbian people.

The hearing in Belize is scheduled to begin on 5 December. It has been brought by the gay Belizean activist Caleb Orozco and is likely to develop into a constitutional legal encounter with international political dimensions.

Section 53 of Belize’s criminal code enacts that: “Every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years.”

Churches unite to defend the code

Belize’s evangelical, Anglican and Catholic churches have united to oppose the application. They are expected to set out their objections in a pre-hearing review on Friday and will seek to introduce evidence that homosexuality can be “cured”, having retained their own ‘high-powered’ legal team

In a joint statement earlier this summer, the churches in Belize declared: “In every country that has granted a new ‘right’ to homosexual behaviour, activists have promoted and steadily expanded this ‘right’ to trump universally recognised rights to religious freedom and expression.” The Catholic bishop Dorick Wright, the Anglican bishop Philip Wright and the evangelical Rev Eugene Crawford have said: “The people of Belize will not surrender our constitution, our moral foundations, and our way of life to predatory foreign interests.”

The Human Dignity Trust

The Human Dignity Trust’s chief executive, Jonathan Cooper, a human rights barrister, says that criminalising homosexuality is illegal under international law. It is setting out to change the law, in the Commonwealth and beyond, on the basis that it is a breach of international human rights to criminalise someone’s sexual identity. Among the legal authorities establishing that precedent is a 1994 ruling by the UN’s human rights committee based on a case in Australia.

The test case in Belize is the first in the HDT campaign. Challenges to homophobic laws in Northern Cyprus and Jamaica should be lodged before Christmas and further cases in other states will follow in the new year.

In its founding statement the HDT says: “Criminalisation causes misery to all of those affected, compromising people’s identity through illegality. It also reduces human beings to their sexual acts. We hope to bring approximately five to 10 cases globally each year. Where necessary we will fund cases. In the event of a prosecution we can assist lawyers in preparing a defence challenging those laws. If appropriate, we may bring cases in our own name.”

The trust is chaired by Tim Otty QC, a human rights specialist. Its patrons include the Liberal Democrat Lord Lester, Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, Sir Shridath Ramphal, the former secretary general of the Commonwealth, Soli J Sorabjee, the former attorney general for India, and Arthur Chaskalson, the former chief justice of South Africa.

British Government initiatives

The Foreign Office has become more active in combating laws that criminalise homosexuality. In an address to the Commonwealth summit in Australia last month, the foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “The UK would like to see the Commonwealth do more to promote the rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. It is wrong in our view that these groups continue to suffer persecution, violence and discrimination within the Commonwealth and that many members still have laws criminalising homosexuality.”

Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope International Diversity Trust, whose launch I attended in September is working in a different way for the same goal, on behalf of people who struggle to have a voice, bringing them to the attention of powerful people who do make decisions, in their own countries and in the UK. It’s not lobbying, exactly; it’s not diplomacy, but it is characterised by “quiet conversations with people who can make a difference, engaging quietly with people rather than shouting at them.

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