Criminalising Homosexuality and Working through International Organisations

This note investigates the role that international organisations have played in bringing about the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity in domestic legal systems. It looks at the historic, current and potential roles of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the Commonwealth.

A series of ground-breaking briefing notes were produced by the Human Dignity Trust in the second half of 2015. These notes aim to illustrate the link between the criminalisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and various aspects of good governance. They also offer information and guidance to governments, the international community, civil society and activists on how to bring about the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity across the globe. This research draws on our experience working with activists in criminalising countries and our expertise in international human rights law. They were produced in consultation with leading academics in each of the areas addressed.

History shows that international organisations have been integral to bringing about the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity in domestic legal systems. The Council of Europe was fundamental in making Europe a criminalisation-free continent. The United Nations has taken progressive steps to bring about change and is increasingly vocal on this issue. The United Nations now looks primed to act upon the content of its treaties and in accordance with its ethos and principles to help bring about decriminalisation. The European Union’s stance on this issue is firm, but its influence can be applied more directly in the countries with which it trades or has cultural links. The Commonwealth could be a powerful vehicle for change if it acts strategically. Like-minded governments can work within these organisations to provide the external influence that is so often required to bring about the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity.

This briefing note starts by examining the role of the Council of Europe to demonstrate international organisations can be instrumental on this issue. The note then considers the United Nations, which has had some success in ending criminalisation, and has recently increased its efforts to promote decriminalisation. It then explores the role of the European Union, which can use its political and economic clout to encourage reform outside of its membership. Finally, it considers the Commonwealth, which can encourage reform within its own membership. Members of these organisations can exert their influence individually or collectively to end the criminalisation and persecution of LGBT people around the globe.

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