LGBTI Rights and the Wrong Way to Give Aid

Article excerpt


The year 2011 was a year of significant advances for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights worldwide. In the United States, Congress finally repealed the discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, allowing gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly in the military. In Australia, the government announced two important changes for the issuing of passports: transgender persons in Australia are no longer required to undergo sex reassignment surgery before having their preferred gender reflected on their passport, and intersex people may now choose an "X" marker if they so wish. Finally, the governments of the United Kingdom, Nepal, Denmark, and Finland all indicated their intention to introduce full marriage equality, while in Colombia, the Constitutional Court gave Parliament until June 2013 to legislate for the status of same-sex unions in that country.

The advancement of LGBTI equality has not been universal, however, and many grave human rights violations continue to take place around the world. Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, observes in her recent report to the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council that "in all regions, people experience violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity" (2011, 3). LGBTI persons around the globe, particularly in the countries of the Global South, are subject to legal sanction, physical abuse, and in extreme cases, killing. While in some countries existing discriminatory laws and practices are the relics of a more homophobic past, 2010 and 2011 were marked by a worrying increase in the criminalization of activities once considered outside the ambit of the law.

In December 2010, the Malawian Parliament introduced an amendment to the Penal Code that, for the first time, criminalizes consensual sexual activity between two women and allows for individuals to be imprisoned for up to five years. In Nigeria, the country's Senate approved legislation that would not only ban all official and unofficial same-sex marriage ceremonies but also prohibit the formation of LGBTI advocacy groups and the expression of same-sex affection in public. And in Uganda, the LGBTI community continues to live under the specter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that, if enacted, would introduce the crime of "aggravated homosexuality" and expose persons convicted of engaging in same-sex intercourse to a possible penalty of death.


It was against this backdrop of a growing global crisis for LGBTI rights that the leaders of the Commonwealth nations met in late October 2011 for their biannual gathering: the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). At the meeting, which was held in Perth, Australia, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK government would begin to use LGBTI rights as one of the conditions for granting aid to other members of the Commonwealth. Under the proposal, countries that maintain or introduce antigay laws and practices would risk seeing a direct reduction in their budgetary aid from Britain. In a subsequent interview with the BBC, Cameron stated: "Britain is now one of the premier aid givers in the world. We want to see countries that receive our aid adhering to proper human rights, and that includes how people treat gay and lesbian people" (BBC 2011).

In the months since the Perth meeting, much has been written and said about Cameron's announcement. Politicians and advocates from the Global North and South have weighed in on the possible merits and potential pitfalls of aid conditionality, both with regard to the promotion of human rights generally and of sexual orientation and gender identity more specifically. Even assuming that Cameron genuinely desires to assist the LGBTI community in the Global South (an assumption that is controversial among advocates), the path his government has chosen to adopt is troubling. …