In early April 2019, the Human Dignity Trust (HDT), on behalf of the Equality & Justice Alliance (EJA), held a meeting of the Commonwealth Group of Experts on Reform of Sexual Offences, Hate Crimes and Related Laws to Eliminate Discrimination against Women and Girls and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people.

The meeting took place across three days in Singapore, and gathered together seven experts with a background in politics, law and academia. They brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experience in researching, reforming and implementing sexual offences and hate crimes legislation, to ensure women and girls and LGBT people do not suffer discrimination under the law.

On the first day we heard from two individuals with direct experience of legislative reform. Both held positions in public office during a time of major change to federal sexual offences legislation broadly, and both were in office when acts of same-sex sexual activity were decriminalised and were able to reflect on their experience of this process and the lessons that were learned.

We heard from Kim Simplis Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children and Spouse of the Prime Minister of Belize, who spearheaded reforms of colonial-era sexual offences laws in her country, including the insertion of gender neutral language, elimation of marital rape exemptions, and introduction of more stringent penalties for offenders. During the discussion, we reflected on the importance of individual champions and alliance-building as key to the success of such reforms.

We also heard from John Bradley, a US lawyer and former Attorney General of Palau. In the lead up to John’s time as Attorney General, reforms were made to penal laws which saw derogatory language replaced and consensual same-sex sexual conduct decriminalised. Interesting points relating to the manner in which such reforms could be realised were raised. For example, whether lawmakers should aim to open a frank, and potentially painful, public discussion on proposed reforms, or, whether change should take place quietly and behind the scenes to avoid increased risks for vulnerable groups.

“One of the nice things about being here this week is to discover that people are sharing the experience of legislative reform, and not only sharing it but coming up with ways to make it work better for other countries in the future. To see that happen is pretty exciting” – John Bradley

On day two, presentations were given by experts who are currently engaged in producing reports commissioned by HDT that will provide excellent insight, guidance and inspiration for Commonwealth governments that are considering reforms in these critical areas.

Eric Gitari, a Kenyan LGBT human rights expert involved in several cases to overturn discriminatory laws in Kenya, delivered a presentation on his research into the prevalence of hate crimes against LGBT people across the Commonwealth.

“The interests of the state in legislating need to be realigned to ensure they are responding to genuine concerns of instability in society instead of policing morality; too often the priorities are not about reducing violence, they are about perpetrating prejudice” – Eric Gitari

Dr. Kay Goodall, one of the authors of a report that analyses good practice on legislating to address hate crimes in the Commonwealth, also due to be published by HDT shortly, then presented the main findings of this research.

The third presentation was given by Indira Rosenthal, one of the experts drafting a report on good practice sexual offences laws with examples from around the Commonwealth. The report details the essential criteria to be met for a law to be considered ‘good practice’ across four areas, including rape and sexual assault, sexual offences involving people with disabilities, decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity and age of consent laws.

“Countries have exercised their sovereignty in joining human rights treaties, under which they have very clear obligations to make effective legislation and take other measures to guarantee fundamental human rights. Top of the list of those rights is the right to equality and protection from discrimination” – Indira Rosenthal

On the final day, the experts attended a learning exchange with the Singaporean Minister of Law and Home Affairs and his staff. His senior legal team explained the reforms to the Singaporean Penal Code that are underway, including expanding the definition of rape beyond the male perpetrator/female victim binary and repealing the marital rape exemption. The experts engaged with the Minister on several topics, including the law that criminalises consensual same-sex sexual activity, though this provision is not currently under review by the government.

The convening concluded with a consideration of the next steps for the Commonwealth Group of Experts and plans for the future, in which the group discussed the benefits of expanding on the report on good practice sexual offences laws by embarking on an assessment of all 53 Commonwealth member states against the core criteria outlined in the report, and the means in which the experts could be deployed to provide technical assistance to governments with which the EJA is working.

The convening was particularly fruitful in the way that it provided an opportunity for participants to share knowledge and expertise, expand their networks and build connections with colleagues. This has already produced some tangible outcomes.

For instance, one of the participants present, Christine Forster, who is an expert on sexual offences laws and women’s rights, and Indira Rosenthal decided to work together on the expansion of the report on good practice sexual offences laws in which the laws of all Commonwealth states will be assessed.

Similarly, one expert, Fazilet Ozdenefe, an MP in the Northern Cyprus Assembly, was able to offer valuable insight into the process of reform to the Criminal Code in the Republic which saw provisions introduced to prohibit hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This information was able to be inserted into the above-mentioned report on good practice laws to address anti-LGBT hate crimes.

“Reforming the law is a really important first step; you will rarely find equality on the ground before you’ve got a legal framework in place” – Christine Forster

Keep an eye on the Equality & Justice Alliance website to stay up to date with other related news and events, and visit the Human Dignity Trust’s resource page to read the upcoming reports discussed above.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Equality & Justice Alliance Consortium or its partners.