By Costa Gavrielides
Cyprus and Malta will soon become the only two Commonwealth members that will also be EU member states.
For those countries outside the Commonwealth, and even for some within, the international association’s allure, prestige and power can range between irrelevant to even laughable. For a few, the Commonwealth still offers a grandiose sense of a long-lost history, often remembered overly romantically, with access to a network of nations having the semblance of a common background. For all, the most important element of membership is their eligibility to participate in the quadrennial Commonwealth Games – mostly as their athletes’ warm-up for the Olympic Games!
Following Brexit, the UK will surely endeavour to make the Commonwealth more relevant, if only to feed the nation’s bruised national ego. While it is doubtful that such an initiative will offer meaningful financial remedies, it should nonetheless be welcomed, as it could help push some of the 52 member states to progress in the sphere of Human Rights, an area in which many are still very much lagging behind.
At the time of their independence from the Crown, many colonies retained the, mostly beneficial, legislative system of the United Kingdom. However, it was inevitable that some less-positive, or even, by today’s criteria, flawed laws, also found their way into the legal infrastructure of several newly-minted countries all over the world, with the calamitous example of the UK’s “Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885” which, amongst other things, criminalised homosexuality. The law was abolished in the UK in 1967, but unfortunately this came too late for the ex-colonies, as most became independent between 1945 and 1965.
Despite the Commonwealth Charter pledging Human Rights for all Commonwealth citizens, today, a staggering 36 countries out of the 52 Commonwealth members, mostly in Africa and Oceania, still have anti-homosexuality laws, which were first imposed by the British. Consequently, the UK has a very big ethical role to play in helping reverse such legislation, a role that it has been acting upon with limited success. Under their EU commitments to support Human Rights, Cyprus and Malta too have ethical responsibilities to help in this area.
Last Monday, March 13, 2017, during the annual Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey, Commonwealth representatives heard Malta’s Prime Minister and current Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, Joseph Muscat, reference LGBTI rights saying:
“I want to single out the respect for LGBTIQ persons. The lack of it, in a remarkable number of our countries is, arguably, a considerable blot in our family of nations’ standing. I have had conversations and am aware that there are leaders who know that things must change, but are weary of how society would react to their first move. To them, I said, and I say, that the Commonwealth will be with them to help them make the first bold steps. History, I am sure, will judge them positively when they do so.”
It is encouraging to see such initiative in the Commonwealth from Malta, a model nation in its understanding of LGBTI – and, thus, human – rights, and a pioneer country that is propelling forward not only the EU, but also the world in its acknowledgement of how people should be respected for who they are.
Cyprus has a lot to learn from its close neighbour in this regard, as unfortunately the understanding that we need to respect all members of our society equally, is still afar on this island.
Indeed, we need to do far more in the areas that impact discrimination against gays and lesbians. To our society, bisexual people seem to be almost non-existent, even though they are everywhere. Trans people face daily humiliation in their dealings with Cypriot authorities, not to mention the humiliation they endure in carrying out mundane tasks such as going to the bank or picking up a parcel from the post office. Similarly, intersex individuals – people with sex characteristics of both or neither genders – are left in the dark, ever afraid of coming forward, often mutilated at birth.
We need to collectively work to make changes in Cyprus to progress the idea that everyone is equal, not just in words but in their everyday life. We need to look seriously into the areas of youth, employment, policing, education, faith and elsewhere, and see ourselves as future leaders in human rights, including LGBTI rights, taking concrete steps for a vision of a fairer island and a fairer world.
At the dawn of this new era, let us hope Cyprus will be able to be a relevant player in the post-Brexit Commonwealth and make good use of its elevated dual role as an EU member, too. One that uses its position to help steer and educate others to do good starting by helping get LGBTI rights on the agenda of the 2018 Commonwealth Summit and actively discussing the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the ceasing of any discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics and the enactment of laws against homophobic and transphobic rhetoric or violence throughout the Commonwealth.
We need to become a country with vision, if we are to be able help others make the jump. Just like Malta does.
Costa Gavrielides is the president of Accept – LGBT Cyprus