If Canada truly wants to advance LGBT rights, it should earmark funding
While it has recently been proposed that Canada leverage the Commonwealth to push for progress on LGBT rights, it should first try committing direct funding.
For years, LGBT activists from the Global South have issued cautionary advice and pleas to Western governments: while support is urgently needed, it should not take the form of public shaming or financial threats — especially in the context of the Commonwealth, where many Global South countries inherited the criminalizing legal structures that they are now criticized for.
Two recent columns featured in a Canadian media outlet argued for tying trade to LGBT rights and advancing this platform within the Commonwealth. As Britain moves forward post-Brexit, one of the authors noted, there is an opportunity to “ensure LGBT protections are at the very centre of any new Commonwealth trading regime.”
Pursuing such a strategy is not only likely to generate backlash; it also risks diverting attention and resources from the many other strategies for advancing LGBT rights in which Canadian leadership is sorely needed on the international stage — now, more than ever.
With the Trump administration’s announcement to dramatically slash development funding and lagging leadership on the part of once-strong donor countries in Europe, LGBT organizations and initiatives are currently facing a funding crisis that Canada has done very little to respond to. Moreover, while the Commonwealth is one of several multilateral spaces in which Canada can and should contribute to emerging efforts to advance LGBT rights, there are additional spaces in which Canadian leadership would be strategic, and possibly more influential.
Whereas funding has frequently been an obstacle for the emergent LGBT organizations that drive local change, the need for flexible and diverse forms of funding has become even more pronounced. Shockingly, and in sharp contrast to its neighbour to the south and many like-minded European and Scandinavian nations, Canada has never committed funding within its development budget to LGBT rights. While the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives — a small, flexible pot of funding for local organizations administered by Canadian embassies and high commissions — has integrated LGBT rights into its funding platform, the much more substantive funding, policies and programming from Canada’s development budget have never explicitly included a single LGBT project.
This funding omission is particularly shocking given that Canadian organizations have been at the forefront of pioneering innovative work on LGBT rights with local partners around the world — yet such projects (for example, by ARC International, Egale, Equitas and Oxfam Canada), have mostly been funded by foreign countries. The Dignity Initiative, along with 25 national and international civil society organizations, underlined the critical need for stronger Canadian funding commitments in its submission to Canada’s International Assistance Review this past June. If Canada is going to make a dent in advancing the rights of LGBT persons around the world, it has to be willing to put money behind it. Doing so will mean mainstreaming LGBT issues into pre-existing development programming and policy, as well as ensuring that the impending outcome of the International Assistance Review reflects a financial commitment to LGBT programming.
Moreover, focusing on the Commonwealth — and in particular, advocating for coercive or particularly visible forms of advocacy within the Commonwealth — is also not a high priority for most activists on the ground, and that is in some part due to the fact that other multilateral fora have generated more impact.
The UN system — particularly the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, treaty bodies, and Independent Experts — have secured some considerable gains for LGBT communities globally, and UN agencies like the UNDP and UNAIDS have pioneered ground-breaking work. But some of these gains were facilitated through U.S. funding and leadership that have since evaporated. Regional institutions like the Organization of American States have also been engaged in substantive LGBT-related work that is under severe financial stress. Finally, Canada is one of relatively few countries within La Francophonie with a strong interest in advancing LGBT rights; while this space is fraught with the same North-South tensions as the Commonwealth, nuanced and thoughtful diplomacy on the part of Canada should not be discounted.
The Commonwealth matters, but its importance in advancing LGBT rights — and Canada’s role therein — should not be overstated. Western countries including Canada have already generated considerable backlash in similar spaces for criticizing other countries’ legislation. To quote from African activists’ open letter in response to David Cameron’s comments on aid conditionality during a 2011 Commonwealth meeting, “[t]he history of colonialism and sexuality cannot be overlooked when seeking solutions to this issue … old approaches and ways of engaging our continent have to be stopped. New ways of engaging that have the protection of human rights at their core have to recognize the importance of consulting the affected.”
If the Commonwealth is going to have any impact on LGBT rights in its member countries, it will likely arise in response to leadership from the Global South. Canada has a role to play, but it should be subtle and considered. In the meantime, there are no shortage of other spaces and resource gaps that Canada needs to help fill if we want to be on the radar as a global leader on LGBT rights.