The Alliance welcomes the signing of the new Commonwealth Charter, as it underpins the commitment of the Commonwealth to human rights, gender equality and democracy. However, the Charter does not address criminalisation of those at higher risk of HIV, and the Commonwealth must honour its previous commitment to repealing all discriminatory legislation which hampers the HIV response.
In many ways, the new Charter is historic. For the first time, the Commonwealth articulates the shared values that underpin the organisation’s existence and provides unequivocal support for human rights, gender equality, rule of law and democracy.
The Charter calls on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to address violations of Commonwealth values but we are disappointed to see that it fails to introduce the figure of a Commonwealth Commissioner with a mandate to oversee states’ compliance with human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Commonwealth governments have recently agreed to “take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and commit to programmes of education that would help a process of repeal of such laws”.
This decision, which the International HIV/AIDS Alliance's Linking Organisations and partners in Commonwealth Member States have long campaigned for, is a major recognition that a legal, policy and social environment which protects those at higher risk of HIV is essential in responding to the HIV epidemic, a public health crisis for the Commonwealth.
Over 41 Commonwealth countries have offences for sodomy, buggery and gross indecency for sex between men in their criminal codes, in most cases forced on them during the British colonial era. Legal provisions across the Commonwealth also criminalise people who use drugs and sex workers, and increase the vulnerability of people living with HIV.
While the new Commonwealth Charter fails to explicitly acknowledge the incongruence of these laws, the decision of the Member States has given an unequivocal mandate to the Commonwealth Secretariat to support the repeal of all discriminatory legislation.
This presents a test for the Commonwealth as to whether the vague terms of the Charter against discrimination based on “other grounds” do really include sexual orientation and gender identity, drug use, sex work, or HIV status.
On 13 March, at the House of Lords, Lord Black of Brentwood will “ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact of discrimination against gay men and women in Commonwealth countries on global efforts to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS”.
There is hardly a better occasion for the UK government to underpin the steady support it has been giving to reform and modernisation of the Commonwealth and ensure the Commonwealth secretariat takes a proactive and supportive role in promoting the reform of bad laws across the Commonwealth starting with the 41 countries that still criminalise gay men.