LGBT rights in the Commonwealth of Nations

The majority of the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as the British Commonwealth, still criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. This has been described as being the result of "the major historical influence" or legacy of the British Empire. In most cases, it was former colonial administrators that established anti-gay legislation or sodomy acts during the 19th century. The majority of countries then retained these laws following independence.[1][2]

The penalties for private, consensual sexual conduct between same sex adults remain harsh in a number of Commonwealth countries. They include 10 years imprisonment and hard labour in Jamaica, 14 years in Kenya, 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia, and 25 years in Trinidad and Tobago. Bangladesh, Barbados, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda have a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, while in the 12 northern states of Nigeria the maximum penalty for male homosexuality is death. In some countries such as Cameroon, arrests and imprisonment for acts that indicate homosexuality are frequently reported. In Uganda and Nigeria recent legislative proposals would significantly increase the penalties for homosexuality.[3]

Recent Developments

Members of the Commonwealth shaded according to their political status. Commonwealth realms are shown in blue, republics in pink, and members with their own monarchy are displayed in green.

In July 2011 it was reported that the Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma had spoken out against discrimination towards people who were gay or lesbian while on a visit to Australia, arguing that “vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation are at odds with the values of the Commonwealth”. This was the first time that such a figure had spoken publicly on the issue.[4] Sharma re-emphasised the point in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, "We recall the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, which includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding...Discrimination and criminalisation on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with our values and I have had occasion to refer to this in the context of our law-related conferences”.[5]

An organisation has been established in London in 2011, called The Kaleidoscope Trust, to lobby Britain's politicians so that ministers discuss LGBT issues whenever they host their foreign counterparts. It specifically aims to revoke anti-gay laws within the Commonwealth, using business and political pressure. The singers Elton John and George Michael have offered support, with Elton John attending the launch.[6]

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron indicated his support. "It's simply appalling how people can be treated — how their rights are trampled on and the prejudices and even the violence they suffer," he said. "I want Britain to be a global beacon for reform".[7] The British Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell indicated in October that the UK would withhold aid from countries that had a poor human rights record in relation its homosexual citizens, "In a number of countries in Africa that discrimination against homosexuality has concerned us".[8] Malawi subsequently had £19 million of budget support suspended by the UK following various infractions including poor progress on human rights and media freedoms and concern over the government's approach to gay rights.[9] This was later reinforced by David Cameron who emphasises that those receiving UK aid should "adhere to proper human rights".[9]

The British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and the South Australian Labor MLC Ian Hunter called for LGBT rights to be put on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), to be held in Perth at the end of October.[10] "CHOGM has never even discussed — let alone declared its support for — LGBT equality and human rights. It is long overdue that CHOGM addressed this humanitarian issue, which it has neglected for far too long.” This found further support when the Perth Member of the Legislative Assembly, John Hyde, called on Premier Colin Barnett to use his access to CHOGM delegates to address the issue of human rights for gay men and women.[11] Finally, it was confirmed that the Australian Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, would intervene at the October meeting with a request to scrap anti-gay laws.[12][13]

The discussion on gay rights at the Perth meeting received a muted response from many of the attending delegates despite strong support from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Agreement could not be reached to publish a report by Eminent Persons which looked at the Commonwealth's future relevance and demanded that all member states that outlawed homosexuality lift their bans.[14]

In 2014, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, wrote to the Commonwealth Secretary General urging him to use his position to urge member states to live up to their responsibilities to promote the rights of their LGBT citizens. He later argued that Britain should must make defending the rights of gay and lesbian people a key plank of its relations with other Commonwealth countries.[15]

In November 2015, Baroness Verma, Under-Secretary of State at the UK's Department for International Development announced that she would be chairing a round table on LGBT issues at the upcoming Heads of Government meeting in Malta.[16]

A report produced in November 2015 by the Human Dignity Trust in association with the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association found that countries that continue to criminalize same-sex relationships were worsening the impacts of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The report estimates that some 2.9 billion people live in Commonwealth countries where consensual homosexuality is punishable, and approximately 174 million living there may identify as LGBT. It found that: "There is a direct link between criminalizing laws and increased rates of HIV, and the Commonwealth undeniably demonstrates this link. The Commonwealth accounts for approximately 30% of the world’s population but over 60% of HIV cases worldwide. This situation has gotten progressively worse."[17]

Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in 36 of the 52 Commonwealth states.

However, developments in the area of employment discrimination suggests some progress being made, with member states such as the Seychelles (2006), Fiji (2007), Mozambique (2007), Mauritius (2008) and Botswana (2010) introducing legislation against employment discrimination on sexual orientation.[3] In November 2012, Malawi's President Joyce Banda suspended all laws that criminalised homosexuality.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland, who takes office on 1 April 2016, has committed herself to using the first two years of her tenure to promote decriminalization of homosexuality in the (then) 40 of 53 Commonwealth countries that list homosexual behaviour as a crime.[18]

Commonwealth nations where homosexuality is not a criminal offence

Worldwide laws regarding same-sex intercourse and freedom of expression and association
Same-sex intercourse legal Same-sex intercourse illegal
Unenforced penalty
Marriage recognized but not performed1
Civil unions1
Up to life in prison
Unregistered cohabitation1
Death penalty
Same-sex unions not recognized
Laws restricting freedom of expression and association
Rings indicate areas where local judges have granted or denied marriages or imposed the death penalty in a jurisdiction where that is not otherwise the law or areas with a case-by-case application.
1Some jurisdictions in this category may currently have other types of partnerships.
LGBT rights at the United Nations
Support Countries which have signed a General Assembly declaration of LGBT rights or sponsored the Human Rights Council's 2011 resolution on LGBT rights (96 members).
Oppose Countries which signed a 2008 statement opposing LGBT rights (initially 57 members, now 54 members).
Neither Countries which, as regards the UN, have expressed neither official support nor opposition to LGBT rights (44 members).

note: †Signed UN General Assembly declaration in favour of LGBT rights. ‡Signed alternative Statement against LGBT rights.

Where same sex-relationships are recognised

With discrimination protections

Same-sex activity legal, no discrimination protection

Commonwealth nations where homosexuality is a criminal offence

note: † Signed UN General Assembly declaration in favour of LGBT rights. ‡ Signed alternative Statement against LGBT rights.

Not Enforced and with discrimation protections



  • India India (Only for transgender individuals; Employment only)


Not Enforced

Punished by Imprisonment

Death Penalty

See also


  1. Time Magazine, 21September 2011
  2. 'Institute of Commonwealth Studies', January 2011
  3. 1 2
  4. The Pink Paper, Great Britain, 15 July 2011
  5. 'Pink News;',, 27 October 2011
  6. The Pink Paper, 12 September 2011
  7. Time Magazine, 21 September 2011
  8. "Pink News" online news site, 17 October 2011
  9. 1 2 BBC online news, 31 October 2011,
  10. Star Observer, 7 September 2011
  11. WA Today, 22 September 2011
  12. Pink News, 18 October 2011
  14. 'The Independent', 31 October 2011
  18. "Baroness Scotland uses new role as secretary‑general of the Commonwealth to call for LGBT rights". The Independent. 28 November 2015. Retrieved 28 November 2015.
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