Michael Motala is a member of the Overseas Press Club of America, a co-author of Egale Canada's Just Society Report, and is writing a book on the invisible forces behind Brexit. He lives in New York City.
The context of Brexit and the unforeseen shift in the Anglo-American alliance caused by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump are equal parts threat and opportunity for Canadian foreign policy.
After Prime Minister Theresa May's imminent Article 50 notification, Britain will undoubtedly move toward reviving its Commonwealth trade ties, reminiscent of the pre-GATT era of imperial preferences. Yet the Commonwealth as an organization is burdened by a fundamental paradox in values. While 75 countries still criminalize homosexual acts, the vast majority of them in the Commonwealth, Canada, the U.K. and Australia have taken steps toward dismantling anti-gay laws.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has extended his predecessor's foreign policy platform quite effectively. However, a plus ça change strategy at the Commonwealth would amount to a missed opportunity, ensuring Canada fails to punch above its weight on the global stage. As Britain rapidly shifts its foreign policy priorities, Canada must act to ensure LGBT protections are at the very centre of any new Commonwealth trading regime.
In the January, 2017, report Reconnecting with the Commonwealth – which has a foreword by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott – British MP James Cleverly and Tim Hewish, the Royal Commonwealth Society's director of policy and research, propose such a regime. The idea appears to be gaining traction among some British policy-makers. While the authors note "free trade is not based on utility but on justice" (quoting Edmund Burke), their report is mum on human rights.
The Commonwealth is neither a club of shared values nor ideas of justice.
"Being gay in Uganda is illegal, and the most dangerous thing you can imagine," remarked Acram Lukyamuzi Musisi, the 28-year-old Ugandan who is at the forefront of the local LGBT rights movement. He is the founder of Pride Munyonyo LGBT Resource Center in Kampala.
While Mussisi advocates for justice and equality on the ground, the number of homophobic attacks has spiked since Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Mussisi described his fear of the daily prospect of "torture and death" because Ugandan society "regards [LGBT] people as evil, ungodly and an abomination to cultural values."
Uganda's anti-sodomy laws, like those of other former Commonwealth realms, are rooted in Britain's imperial history, constituting an "alien legacy" according to Human Rights Watch. In fact, "the sodomy offence," as the retired Australian judge Michael Kirby has argued, was "England's least lovely criminal law export."
During his tenure as Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird was a staunch critic of LGBT treatment in the Commonwealth, which misfired in Uganda despite his good intentions. Commenting on the increased attacks after the passage of anti-gay legislation, Baird said: "reports of public incitement of hatred and the violence that followed were appalling and of deep concern to Canada."
Details of the Canadian government's plan to implement the first steps of Egale Canada's Just Society Report, and in particular its 20-per-cent international focus, could be a ray of light for the Grits, renowned for their fondness of "sunny ways."
"I'm not going to sugar-coat this for anybody," said Randy Boissonnault, MP for Edmonton Center and Trudeau's special adviser for LGBT issues. "There's work to be done in our own country."
Mr. Boissonnault is tasked with leading the government's efforts to implement the recommendations of the Just Society Report, which was published last June. Canada's support for human rights abroad often takes place hidden from view. "When we are abroad, we have conversations," said Mr. Boissonnault, and sometimes "we can work with civil society organizations in [a] country more easily than we can work with legislators."
History shows us that our Commonwealth peers are unlikely to make progress through open criticism, and local activists make it clear our hidden diplomacy is fairly impotent. Should the Commonwealth evolve into a trade pact, Canada must act to ensure that membership hinges on compliance with fundamental human rights.
"Canada has a key role to play on supporting the human rights of LGBTI people globally," said Doug Kerr, a leader of the Canadian Dignity Initiative. "We have not been at the front of this movement in the past, but it's about time we stepped up."
Eds note: An earlier version incorrectly said that 75 Commonwealth countries still criminalize homosexual acts.