The Commonwealth can be a challenging space to work in, with understandable baggage attached to the organisation’s historic roots in the British Empire. Yet at The Royal Commonwealth Society we see this voluntary association of fifty-three independent nations, united around a common Charter of values such as democracy, human rights and sustainable development, as a contributor to the process of decolonisation. Our work is motivated by the strongly held belief that only through dialogue and understanding between independent nations and their citizens, can we begin to unpick the legacy of empire and find ways in which to work together for a common future.
The Society has a proud history of supporting both gender equality and LGBT rights in the Commonwealth space, particularly through our policy work and work with emerging young leaders at the forefront of advancing equality in their own countries, including in the UK. In our discussions around these sensitive issues with Commonwealth civil society organisations, conversation increasingly leads back to the spectre of colonial laws that discriminate against women and girls and LGBT people.
Too often among Commonwealth governments, discussion of empire remains a taboo to be avoided. Yet it is crucial our Commonwealth conversations confront the legacy of empire head on, not shy away from it as is so often the case. Laws that criminalise consensual same-sex relations, that criminalise abortion, and that permit marital rape – to use just three examples – can still be found in legislation across the Commonwealth, overwhelmingly introduced during the period of the British Empire. Even when these archaic and discriminatory laws go unenforced, they continue to legitimise stigma and discrimination, leave people vulnerable to violence and exploitation, or provide barriers to accessing public services, including potentially lifesaving healthcare. This is why we were delighted that Theresa May made clear at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that the British government expresses deep regret for the imposition of these laws.
“Our work is motivated by the strongly held belief that only through dialogue... can we begin to unpick the legacy of empire and find ways in which to work together for a common future.”
Yet the Commonwealth is a voluntary community of independent nations. The RCS’s work as part of the Equality & Justice Alliance is to utilise the underpinning principles of the Commonwealth – of dialogue, discussion and consensus – in our work approaching sensitive topics like the impact of discriminatory colonial-era legislation. It is our role to show that a Commonwealth problem can also have a Commonwealth solution.
In doing so, we must turn to the Commonwealth governments that are leading the way in reforming colonial legislation, whether that is Belize’s modernisation of their Sexual Offenses Act, the Seychelles’ decision to decriminalise same sex relations, or the introduction of the Solomon Islands’ Family Protection Act that strengthens protections for victims of domestic violence. Our role as the Alliance is to ensure that awareness of these reforms is shared with civil society organisations, high-level Champions and government decision-makers, to build awareness of the case for reform, and how it can be successfully carried out. After all, the ‘Commonwealth Advantage’ is that similar laws and political and legal systems make peer learning and South-South knowledge sharing particularly beneficial in the Commonwealth.
I am always struck by how, even in vastly different cultures and contexts, the shared experiences of the civil society leaders we work with resonate across the Commonwealth, as they work to overcome shared challenges brought about by a shared history. Through the Alliance, we are delighted to support this cross-Commonwealth dialogue, and to support governments that want to utilise their peers’ good practice examples to advance equality in their own countries.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Equality & Justice Alliance Consortium or its partners.