The Commonwealth has been the focus of worldwide attention by activists for the issue of discrimination against LGBT people to be discussed for the first time at CHOGM this year. Much of the lobbying has focused on Sharma.
Speaking to an audience of several hundred at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth People’s Forum this afternoon he said the Commonwealth was about democracy, development and diversity, pointing to the 2009 affirmation of the Commonwealth values and principles.
“This includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding,” he said.
“This means we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity. Discrimination and criminalisation on the grounds of sexual orientation is opposed to our values and and I have had occasion to refer to this in the context of our law-related conferences.”
At the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in Sydney, Australia in July, Sharma said that "vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with the fundamental values of the Commonwealth."
Human rights activist Peter Tatchell said with this statement Sharma has "shown strong leadership."
"His speech is a tacit rebuke to the more than 40 Commonwealth member states that continue to criminalise homosexuality, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment," Tatchell said. "They comprise more than half the countries in the world that treat same-sex relations as a serious criminal offence."
Sharma claimed that work is going on 'behind the scenes'.
"This sometimes leads to a perception that we are inactive or silent on certain issues," he wrote. "This could not be further from the truth."
Sharma cited work on ratification of human rights treaties, aiding countries with UN human rights periodic reviews (which have consistently included questioning on LGBT rights), the establishment of various National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and working with human rights NGOs.
Sharma claimed that:
"I have consistently made it clear publicly that we deplore hate crimes of any nature and the vilification and targeting of gay and lesbian people runs counter to the fundamental values of the Commonwealth."
Following intense lobbying, the meeting's host, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has said that he will call for an end to the laws criminalising homosexuality at CHOGM. The Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has also said he will support the call.
However a report today said that India will oppose anything which involves the imposition of penalties for Commonwealth nations that discriminate against gay people.
Commonwealth advisory body, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which includes the openly gay retired High Court judge Michael Kirby, has recommended that Commonwealth countries repeal legislation criminalising homosexuality on the grounds that anti-gay laws are hampering efforts to combat the spread of HIV.
Reports today say that India is expected to block a push by Australia, Canada and the UK to set up a Commonwealth human rights and rule-of-law watchdog as recommended by the EPG, arguing that it goes beyond the mandate of the 54-nation group. The proposed leader of the watchdog was reported to be Kirby.
The Times of India reported yesterday that India's opposition was based on concerns such a group would only duplicate the role of the UN Human Rights Council.
According to The Australian newspaper, India's objections are rooted in its concern that a periodic review of its record on human rights by the UN next year will push for the caste system to be declared racist and because it is protecting its neighbour, Sri Lanka, from human rights scrutiny.
These are the four proposals that many LGBTI campaigners want to see on the CHOGM agenda and that they want all Commonwealth member states to adopt:
- Decriminalisation of homosexuality
- Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
- The enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect LGBTI people from hate crimes
- Consultation and dialogue with LGBTI organisations