This piece was first published in Embassy, Canada's foreign policy newsweekly.
In recent years the Conservative government has positioned itself as one of the most vocal governments in Canadian history in defending gay rights abroad. Whether for ideological reasons or those of personal conviction, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has come out as one of the fervent voices for Canada’s new foreign policy to speak out against the persecution of people based on their sexual orientation.
What appears to be embedded in a new foreign policy is the concept that "gay rights are human rights." Without delving deeper into how that very phrase in and of itself can be problematic — where do bisexual, lesbian or transgendered people fit within such a narrow concept? — I question why Canada keeps showing up to the table with an empty wallet — full of promises, but only blowing hot air.
With a growing stance of pounding its chest on the international stage, Canada is demanding that other countries protect people who face persecution because of their sexual orientation. As a global fellow in 2008 at the Walter & Gordon Foundation — a private charitable organization meant to better Canadian public policy — I explored the role Canada could play in defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people through its development aid.
Then and now, Canada still remains not well placed to be a leader on LGBT human rights issues. Unlike countries such as the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, the US and the UK, who to one extent or another fund LGBT civil society groups, the Canadian International Development Agency, by contrast, places gay rights in the "closet" and makes sexuality invisible throughout its programs and projects. Basically, Canada comes to the table of gay rights advocacy with a blank, valueless currency note, not a blank cheque that could effectively save lives and help stem the tide against violence and persecution.
In 2010, the US-based Funders of LGBTQ Issues reported that $35,476,361 US in total grants went to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex civil society organizations in the Global South and East. As a snapshot, $35 million is a mere drop in the bucket when looking at global aid, which amounts to billions of dollars every year. So dismal is Canada’s record in this report, it could be said we are missing in action. From government agencies, to private and public foundations, to consulates and embassies, not one respondent noted Canada as a financial contributor to advancing gay rights in the Global South or East.
So what could this mean?
It means Canada has seated itself at the global table without resources or a clear direction in terms of what it wants to achieve. Even with the decriminalization of homosexuality, violence and abuse still continues. This is evidenced in South Africa, where despite constitutional rights for LGBT people, many still live in fear of corrective rape, are targets of physical violence, and are the victims of murder for just being who they are.
In essence, the continuous grandstanding and empty-pocket approach of our foreign affairs minister is unsustainable and could be a recipe for disaster. Without a plan, without a vision, there could be an unintended effect of abuse being meted out against LGBT people in reaction to the foreign minister’s actions.
With no clear plan in sight, it’s worrying that Canada could align itself with the recent comments made by British Prime Minister David Cameron about cutting foreign aid to Commonwealth countries that criminalize homosexuality. Such an imposition of donor sanctions may be developed with the intention of improving the human rights situation of LGBT people. But, as evidenced in Malawi — where the UK cut 19 million pounds in aid after two gay men were sentenced to 14 years of hard labour — this reactive position created a vacuum, further exacerbated the environment of intolerance, and placed LGBT lives in more danger. Aid cuts do no good in this fight for justice and equality, and ultimately harm everyone in society by placing LGBT people who are already vulnerable in society at the front line of being killed.
So what can the Canadian government do to adequately and effectively address the human rights of LGBT people in Africa and the Caribbean? Firstly, it must integrate LGBT issues as an integral part of CIDA’s programs and projects. Secondly, it must develop an action plan for policy development and support to LGBT issues at a foreign policy level. Thirdly, it must continue to advocate for inclusion of LGBT issues in UN and Organization of American States functional committees, funds and programs. And lastly, the Canadian government must create mechanisms to enable LGBT organizations to access funding immediately.
It’s important to recall the words of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher when she said, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.”