Claiming LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth after Empire

Claiming LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth after Empire

Matthew Waites (University of Glasgow)


Is the Commonwealth, despite its origins in British imperialism, a suitable organisation to utilise for human rights claims – particularly those of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people?  Despite being called  ‘Nobody’s Commonwealth’ by former Deputy Secretary-General Krishnan Srinivasan,[1] it has been developed as a political opportunity structure through the creation of the Charter of the Commonwealth in 2013, which affirms concepts such as rule of law, peace and human rights.  Attempts at reinvigoration also occurred from 2009 through LGBTI human rights claims by activists and British governments.

My own involvement developed from co-editing, with Corinne Lennox, Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change (available free online).  Covering 16 countries it provides the first comparative analysis of struggles for human rights in Commonwealth states, demonstrating their poor record. Following this I became involved in organising the LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth conference on International Nelson Mandela Day 18 July 2014, ahead of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.   This produced the LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth Conference Statement, and forged transnational LGBTI activist networks – now contributing to engaging the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta, 2015.  This research and public engagement provides a basis for reflecting on strategies to put intersectional and postcolonial theories into practice, such as those of Crenshaw and Said.[2]

The British Empire’s criminalisation of same-sex sexual behaviour left a legacy of prohibition – in 42 of (then) 54 Commonwealth states, as demonstrated in our book’s opening chapter and Human Rights Watch report This Alien Legacy, by Alok Gupta with Scott Long. The state analyses didn’t note any contribution of the Commonwealth to LGBTI human rights struggles.  However activist engagement occurred from 2007 with Sexual Minorities Uganda’s contested entrance of the Commonwealth People’s Space during the Kampala CHOGM (see Report).  Indeed, LGBTI human rights activism cannot afford to repudiate the Commonwealth, since the need for international action is too serious.  For example, proposals for the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, involving life imprisonment for same-sex acts – thankfully  not enacted in 2014 – have been nothing less than a threat of genocide. But its imperial history makes the Commonwealth problematic for responses.

The Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games presented a context where LGBTI NGOs decided to intervene. Equality Network, Scotland’s leading LGBTI organisation, and Pride Glasgow obtained funding for a conference, and contacted me to help organize it.  The LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth conference emerged as a partnership between Equality Network, Kaleidoscope Trust as the leading UK-based LGBT NGO working internationally, Pride Glasgow, and Glasgow Human Rights Network.  The steering group involved international activists Bisi Alimi (Nigeria) and Dr Frank Mugisha (Uganda).  The event was free to attend, although with a limited budget there were inequalities of participation related to North/South, West/East, racialisation, ethnicity, and religion. The Statement and further information are on the conference website.

Videos throughout the conference have recently been published via Glasgow Human Rights Network’s website and YoutubePart 1 ‘Welcome and Keynote Addresses’ includes Fiona Hyslop MSP from the Scottish Government; followed by Dr. Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, discussing opposition to the Anti-Homosexuality Act; and Dr. Purna Sen, Chair of Kaleidoscope.  Further panels covered  Voices from Around the Commonwealth; Religion and Cultural Politics; Scotland; and Transnational Activism, with Monica Tabengwa, Frank Mugisha and Peter Tatchell.

In the final Debate and Vote on Conference Statement’, chaired by Alistair Stewart of Kaleidoscope and me, we responded to requests to include the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth by arguing for leaving her out; while foregrounding the historical responsibility of the British Empire for criminalisation.  An explicit emphasis was placed on rights in relation to racism and religion, adopting a broadly intersectional approach.  The Statement is now being referred to by Kaleidoscope Trust and Equality Network in work including a petition to the Commonwealth Secretary General.  This suggests the productive role that a critical publicly engaged sociology can play – here by putting critiques of colonialism and intersectional politics into practice (as argued in The Conversation).  Yet delivery of the petition by an all-white delegation from the UK suggests NGOs need to take more care with the politics of representation.

My central argument here is that to understand the developing activism, it is necessary to understand the under-development of postcolonial thinking in UK LGBT NGOS. For Equality Network, the conference was a novel venture into international politics, and Scottish calls for LGBTI human rights in the Commonwealth lacked emphasis on legacies of Scotland’s imperial role, fitting some emerging nationalist narratives.  But Kaleidoscope is the most significant international organisation; and it is Dr Purna Sen who is the most pivotal and revealing figure in understanding how UK LGBTI NGOs engage the Commonwealth.

Dr Sen was then Chair of Kaleidoscope (though has since moved to board member); also formerly Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat.  She is Deputy Director of the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics, and campaigning to become a Labour MP. In her impressively wide-ranging Keynote Dr Sen argued strongly for the Commonwealth to take action on LGBTI human rights.

I had suggested that Dr Sen might include comments on the implications of colonialism, considering this a crucial theme.  Yet colonialism was passed over quickly: ,This is a … British legacy left to most colonies. I’d like both to be clear that it was a legacy and to be clear that every state has had decades in which to change that legacy, and those who have chosen not to must accept responsibility for that, its not good enough to pass it off on a colonial master’ (Dr Purna Sen, Keynote).

Unfortunately this emphasis had the effect of downplaying the ongoing relevance of colonialism, rather than opening up discussion – both in economic and cultural terms, such as through racism and language, or for strategies of representation.  Meanwhile Dr Sen gave Peter Tatchell friendly praise for initiating action in the Commonwealth via close engagement with her Human Rights Unit from 2009 – without noting preceding interventions by Sexual Minorities Uganda in 2007, or any strategic limitation in his intervening alone without southern allies.

How then should the Kaleidoscope approach be interpreted?  Kaleidoscope was an LGBT organization initially led by white gay men based in London, particularly Lance Price from the Labour Party’s Blair circle.  Dr. Sen’s later arrival from the Commonwealth and Amnesty International, with wide human rights experience – and as a woman of South Asian heritage – was generally seen as moving Kaleidoscope towards a broader approach. Sen certainly shows that simple criticisms of white male organizations are outdated.

What Purna Sen’s role reveals, however, is something more subtle.  The Commonwealth is entwined with elite networks in UK society, particularly through its London-based Secretariat.  These networks include London-based LGBT NGOs like Kaleidoscope, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation in certain respects, but also actors in political parties (the Labour Party) and academia (the London School of Economics). The Commonwealth remains entwined with such elite networks of power centred in London, which helps explain how sympathetic engagement with this organisation has emerged as a key strategy for leading UK LGBT NGOs without enough postcolonial understanding. We should consider this via the sociological tradition from Weber acknowledging power distinct from class and status, including C. Wright Mills’ discussion of The Power Elite [3].

Purna Sen is not coming from an elite background.  She has a highly impressive record of hard work in multiple roles, including as a teacher, and has commented: ‘I’m a single mum, I’m an immigrant, I’ve worked 35 years … [I know] what it’s like to struggle for money’ (Murnaghan interview).  Yet it is useful to reflect on the elite networks which she has joined. A few talented individuals from ethnic minorities in the UK have always been drawn into elite networks of postcolonial governance, adopting universalist moral discourses insufficient to address global power relations.  Even the conservative Pareto, an original sociological theorist of elites, noted the ‘circulation of elites’ allowing a few to experience meritocratic achievement. [4]

Nevertheless some improvement in the Secretariat should be acknowledged, to a new context in which a feminist like Sen has used a broadly intersectional discourse of human rights, articulating rights together for women, disabled people, LGBT people and those experiencing racism.  Sen’s Keynote also included serious criticism of the Commonwealth, including the Secretariat’s inadequate resourcing for human rights, so she has brought to UK LGBTI politics internal knowledge of the organisation’s conservatism.  The problem may be however, that as a Commonwealth insider, her experience and expertise – in conjunction with Peter Tatchell and others – has led to insufficient emphasis on the need to disrupt North/South dynamics and displace London leadership.

What a radical politics requires is more conscious, visible and sustained alliance building between North and South (as indicated in our concluding chapter).  The discourse of human rights needs to be accompanied by systematic practices of representation to de-centre the elites of London, the UK and the Commonwealth.  Allowing southern activists and governments to lead is particularly important.  In 2013, on a panel with Minister for International Development Lynne Featherstone MP and Alistair Stewart, I argued the need for formerly colonized southern states which have decriminalized to be encouraged to take a leading role – using the example of the Bahamas.  We need imaginative Nixon in China thinking outside the box, International Relations style, to shift the balance of power in the Commonwealth by disrupting a North/South impasse.  For example, could Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller be encouraged to take a lead in Malta?

The international movement for LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth needs more than a discourse of human rights universalism, even if intersectionally highlighting interdependence of rights. Advancing southern leadership is very important, and UK-based LGBTI NGOS should strategise more – and lobby the UK government more – to promote southern state leadership.  UK LGBTI NGOs should also channel more funds to southern NGOs for this.  But we also need to criticise how UK elites maintain disproportionate power in the Commonwealth Secretariat, and overestimate Commonwealth legitimacy – feeding into London-based LGBTI NGO perspectives. Further, we must criticise Commonwealth elites for insufficiently challenging economic and social structures of global inequality shaped by imperialism.


[1] Srinivasan, K. (2005) The Rise, Decline and Future of the British Commonwealth (Basingstoke: Palgrave).Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, 1989 University of Chicago Legal Forum 139-67 (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, 1989 University of Chicago Legal Forum 139-67 (1989).
[2] Crenshaw, K. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp.139-167; Said, E. (1978) Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
[3] Wright Mills, C. (1956) The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press).
[4] Hartmann, M. (2007) The Sociology of Elites (London: Routledge).


Matthew Waites is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow.  He co-edited, with Corinne Lennox, Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change (London: School of Advanced Study, 2013).