John Baird points finger at gay rights abuses in African, Caribbean countries

Published: January 23, 2012

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird urged Commonwealth countries to protect the rights of homosexuals Monday, singling out African and Caribbean countries for criminalizing homosexuality and failing to protect gays from homophobic attacks.

Canadian gay rights activists said they were both “stunned” and “delighted” to hear Baird defend gay rights abroad.

Addressing a meeting of the Royal Commonwealth Society in London, Baird called laws criminalizing homosexuality a “hangover” from a bygone era.

“Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality,” Baird said. “Throughout most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, colonial-era laws remain on the books that could impose draconian punishments on gay people simply for being gay.

“This contributes to social stigma and violence against gay people,” he said.

Baird called on Commonwealth governments to follow the example of “progressive countries” like Canada and the United Kingdom, and not “wilfully ignore” their obligations to protect the rights of citizens regardless of sexual orientation.

“We will continue to press countries in the Commonwealth to live up to their international obligations, and uphold the basic contract any government should have with its people,” he said. “The criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the fundamental Commonwealth value of human rights.”

Baird raised the case of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato, who was killed last year amid a storm of homophobic violence in the East African country. Kato’s face appeared in 2010 on the front page of a tabloid newspaper — along with the faces of other gay right activists — under the headline “Hang Them.”

Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in January 2011, when he was attacked at his home. His killers have been tried and convicted.

Baird said it is up to governments to curb gay bashing within their borders, calling on them to take a more proactive role in protecting the rights of homosexuals.

“We don’t accept that because a state isn’t directly complicit in this type of intolerance that its hands are clean,” he said. “We firmly believe it is the role of the state to protect its people, to inform their people about the irreparable harm intolerance and hate cause, and to accept those who may be different into their society.”

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, said she was both “stunned” and “delighted” to hear Baird sticking up for persecuted gays around the world.

Egale Canada is a Toronto-based human rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

“I didn’t know it could possibly come out of mouths of one of our Conservative government members,” she said. “Kudos to Mr. Baird for stepping up.”

Kennedy called Baird’s remarks a “good first step,” and urged the government to take further concrete action to support homosexuals abroad.

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