Theresa May has said that she “deeply regrets” Britain’s historical legacy of anti-gay laws across the Commonwealth as its 53 leaders gathered in London for their annual summit.
The prime minister urged the Commonwealth nations to overhaul “outdated”, colonial-era legislation that treats more than 100 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across the member countries as criminals.
May had already gone further than any of her predecessors when she acknowledged last year that Britain had a “special responsibility” to help change hearts and minds on anti-gay laws.
May drew cheers from some in the audience on Tuesday when she said: “Nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love.”
The human rights activist Peter Tatchell described the move as “positive and welcome” but suggested it should have been made in front of Commonwealth leaders who oversaw the enforcement of the repressive laws rather than at an NGO side event.
However, he added: “This statement of regret cannot be easily dismissed and disparaged by Commonwealth heads of government. The prime minister’s regret for Britain’s imposition of anti-gay laws valuably reframes the LGBT issue in a way that it is likely to provoke less hostility in Commonwealth countries.”
David Cameron was criticised in 2011 when he told Commonwealth leaders at a meeting in Australia that UK foreign aid should become conditional on their decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Same-sex relations are still illegal in 36 Commonwealth member states, including nine that have a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
May said: “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. As the UK’s prime minister, I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.
“As a family of nations we must respect one another’s cultures and traditions. But we must do so in a manner consistent with our common value of equality, a value that is clearly stated in the Commonwealth charter.”
She added: “There remains much to do. Nobody should face persecution or discrimination because of who they are or who they love. And the UK stands ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.”
This year’s summit is officially hosting gay rights activists under the umbrella of the Commonwealth Equality Network, giving grassroots campaigners the opportunity to lobby international government ministers and officials directly. – The Guardian