Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Decriminalising homosexuality one country at a time

The map above, from Wikipedia, shows homophobic laws around the world. In grey and blue countries, homosexuality is legal. In orange and red ones, it is not. Shading shows the strength of protections (for blue) or penalties (for orange). Homosexuality is illegal in around 80 countries; in the worst countries (Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan) you can be killed just for being gay.

Lots of groups are trying to change this, of course. And today the Guardian has an interesting piece on a new one, the Human Dignity Trust. Their goal is to decriminalise homosexuality, one country at a time, by pursuing test cases in local courts. They can do this because the countries involved are either parties to the ICCPR (which protects sexual identity), or have constitutional sovereignty (meaning that laws abhorrent to their constitution can be overturned). Many of those - the big orange band through Africa - are also former British colonies, their laws British relics, with the Privy Council in London their ultimate appeal court (or at least a powerful legal influence). Which gives the Trust the ironic strategy of using one colonial relic to overturn another.

Given the legal similarities between many of these jurisdictions, every positive ruling helps every other case:

"What that means is that when we turn up in the difficult places of Africa and Asia, it's watertight. You can imagine them saying: 'Well, that's South Africa, that's the US supreme court' and trying to distinguish them. But it would be very difficult to distinguish two privy council decisions, one from the South Pacific, one from the Caribbean. If you are that independent judge in Kenya, faced with those authorities, how do you say: 'We're going to retain criminalisation'? You can't."


Cooper, also measured but with the fire of optimism in his eyes, thinks they could have all the decisions they need in five years. "We will have to pay for cases in jurisdictions; I don't see why local lawyers should do it pro bono. We will fundraise, and there is something rather charming that you can say to somebody: 'If you give us £50,000, I can more or less guarantee that you will have decriminalised homosexuality in Tonga.' And actually, you know, that's great."

That is kindof cool, and I think that would be £50,000 well spent.