By Paula Gerber
Barely six months ago, international anger and calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Russia drew nearly as much news coverage as the games’ sporting achievements. And as the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow get under way, it is worth remembering that although Scotland has nothing to match Russia’s gay propaganda laws, the modern Commonwealth of Nations is home to some of the most homophobic countries in the world.
In 42 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, it is a crime to be gay. That means that four out of every five countries competing in the Commonwealth Games still criminalise consensual homosexual sex.
How should Australia respond to a sporting event where the majority of countries competing can jail, if not kill, gay people?
Boycotts of sporting events for breaches of human rights or international law are not unheard of. We saw them during the apartheid regime in South Africa and again at the 1980s Olympics in Moscow. But such action is generally not popular since it punishes the athletes, rather than the politicians responsible for the human rights violations.
Scottish cyclist and world record holder, Graham Obree, called for a ban on Ugandan politicians attending the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, rather than a boycott. However, Obree’s efforts have fallen on deaf ears, since the Scottish government’s response was to state that “Scotland will welcome all visitors to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games in 2014”.
As one of the few Commonwealth countries to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, we need to ask some hard question: as it no longer reflect our values should Australia continue to be part of this organisation?
The Commonwealth was formed in 1949 and recently sought to modernise itself with a new charter. This was designed to move it from being a collection of nations that shared a common history of having once been part of the British empire, to a gathering of likeminded countries with “shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable”.
The 2013 charter explicitly states that members are committed to equality, non-discrimination and respect for human rights. This flies in the face of the treatment of LGBT persons in many parts of the Commonwealth.
It is not the only human rights issue of concern. More than half the Commonwealth countries retain the death penalty including, in some cases, for juveniles: a clear breach of international human rights law.
In Australia, we cannot claim a perfect record when it comes to human rights (think Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers). But do we really want to be part of an association of nations where the majority of members think it is ok to lock up LGBT people? By staying a member of the Commonwealth are we condoning these discriminatory laws and practices?
It would be nice to think we could use our membership to be a voice for reform, to consider the Commonwealth as a useful vehicle for promoting respect for human rights. But recent developments in Uganda and Nigeria suggest that any attempt to increase respect for LGBT rights within the Commonwealth will be rejected as neo-colonialism, and the potential for Australia to have a positive influence on the protection of LGBT rights within the Commonwealth seems slim.
If we decided to leave the Commonwealth, we would not be the first. Zimbabwe and Gambia have both withdrawn, as have South Africa and Pakistan, although they have since rejoined. If Australia finds that this association no longer reflects our values and ideals, then maybe we should withdraw, retaining the option of rejoining if and when the majority of countries cease to persecute LGBT people and violate fundamental human rights.
Withdrawing would mean we could no longer compete in sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games. Is this too high a price to pay? Perhaps we should ask Ian Thorpe, the proud gay man who won 10 gold medals at Commonwealth Games.