LGBTQ activists hoping to advance the rights of sexual minorities at this April's Commonwealth summit in London face disappointment. Government leaders have decided to punt the issue, in part to avoid having the last Commonwealth gathering that the Queen is likely to attend end in discord.
Same-sex acts are a crime in 36 of 53 countries that were once part of the British empire, a legacy of laws that have long since been rescinded in Britain and other developed countries. In the northern part of Nigeria, the crime of same-sex acts carries the death penalty. Even where the laws have been allowed to languish, ancient prejudice, sometimes stoked by evangelical Christian missionaries, makes being gay difficult and dangerous.
Nonetheless, at the 2015 summit in Malta, LGBTQ activists addressed Commonwealth members. Last June, a coalition of LGBTQ organizations from member countries, called the Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), was accredited by the Commonwealth's board of governors.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Theresa May have made advancing LGBTQ rights a priority, and there was hope that this year's communiqué might embrace progressive language on the issue.
However, a Canadian government official, speaking on background, said that there was now no expectation of such language. The Commonwealth operates by consensus, and many developing governments see advocacy of LGBTQ rights by developed nations as an intrusion into their internal affairs.
Another factor is the presence at the London summit of the Queen, who will be 93 when the heads of government convene in Malaysia in 2020. The general assumption is that she will be too frail to make the trip. This is likely the last Commonwealth summit she will attend.
The Queen is devoted to her role as head of the Commonwealth, and organizers are worried that a clash over LGBTQ rights could mar the last summit at which she is physically present, which has led to a general consensus that this is not the year for a big push on sexual minority rights.
That push is likely to be a long time coming. Malaysia, the next summit host, is a country where "discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people is pervasive," according to Human Rights Watch's 2018 annual report. Homosexual acts in Malaysia are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, plus whipping.
Paul Dillane is executive director of London-based Kaleidoscope Trust, an NGO that advocates for the LGBTQ rights around the world.
"We recognize that it is unrealistic to expect the word LGBT to be in the final communiqué, although we would like it to be," he said in an interview. Nonetheless, a record number of activists from Commonwealth countries will be at the summit in April, he said.
"Our activists will be at every one of the forums, they will participate, they will speak," Mr. Dillane said.
LGBTQ rights "are an item that should always be on the agenda," he added.
Activists will use the opportunity of being together at the heads of government meeting to compare notes and best practices in advocating for sexual minority rights at home.
There has been progress. In 2015, Mozambique removed the offence of "practices against nature" from its criminal code, and Seychelles did likewise in 2016. LGBTQ advocates hope that, country by country, they can move the Commonwealth away from intolerance toward sexual minorities, until finally the organization as a whole embraces change.
Canada under Stephen Harper and Britain's David Cameron previously took a confrontational approach to advancing LGBTQ rights, threatening to cut funding unless recalcitrant states reformed their laws.
Mr. Trudeau and Ms. May have preferred to stress encouragement rather than confrontation. There has been speculation that Ms. May might offer an apology at the Commonwealth summit on behalf of Great Britain for introducing sodomy laws into its former colonies in the first place.
But it appears unlikely that there will be any real progress in reaching a consensus on the rights of sexual minorities, either in April or in summits to come.