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Caleb Orozco v. Attorney General of Belize: Upholding Human Rights for All?

05/07/2013 12:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Mark Stephens Human rights lawyer; president, Commonwealth Lawyers Association
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In a recent speech in London, Sir Shridath Ramphal, the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, laid out his views opposing the criminalization of homosexuality, wherever it occurs. Sir Shridath quoted another stalwart of anti-discrimination, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has said that the violence and criminal sanctions suffered by LGBTI people across the world are intended to make them "doubt that they too are children of God," which he calls "nearly the ultimate blasphemy." Sir Shridath went further, equating opposition to the persecution of LGBTI people with the campaign to end slavery in the 19th century and the anti-apartheid struggle of the 20th century. "The abolitionists were pilloried, but they prevailed," he said. "The abomination was not their campaign, as the plantation owners complained, but the evil of slavery itself."

Sir Shridath Ramphal, who played a pivotal role in dismantling apartheid, is an unapologetic advocate of decriminalization. He recognizes criminal sanctions for what they are, a colonial legacy that never had a part in the indigenous cultures on which they were imposed and that should have been repealed long ago.

This month, Caleb Orozco, the head of United Belize Advocacy Movement, or UniBAM, a small human rights organization in Belize, will attempt to do just that. His case challenging the constitutionality of section 53 of the Belize criminal code, which criminalizes consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, is due to be heard by a court in Belize today, May 7.

Caleb Orozco is determined that the challenge will succeed. In a recent interview he pinpointed, with admirable logic, the insidious nature of the laws in issue: "The problem with those laws is that [they're] used as an extortion tool, as an intimidation weapon and to harass, even if the laws aren't routinely enforced," he said. He only wants to uphold the freedoms and rights that the constitution of Belize and international human rights law guarantee and protect, specifically the rights to privacy and dignity. Supporting Mr. Orozco's case in court are three international human rights organizations: the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Human Dignity Trust. I write this blog post as the recently elected president of CLA. My presidency will continue to uphold human rights law by opposing the criminalization of homosexuality. In doing so, I carry on the work of my predecessor Boma Ozobia and those who came before her.

In contrast to Caleb's approach, the campaign by those opposing the challenge, who have come together under the name of Belize Action, generates a lot of heat and, with respect, not much light. This is dangerous, because heat is the last thing the case needs. For example, Belize Action has accused the CLA, ICJ and Human Dignity Trust of being "homosexual organizations" pushing "foreign values." Whatever they mean by "homosexual organizations," we are all human rights organizations, supported by the leading jurists in the world (some may be gay or lesbian, but most, evidently, are not), and we are committed to upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights values, which are universal values. We are NGOs. None of us is well-resourced, and the lawyers representing us are all doing it pro bono. UniBAM's opponents have also forgotten that the consensus amongst the international community, of which Belize is a respected member, has consistently reiterated that to criminalize LGBTI people is to violate their human rights. Since when, as Belize Action's campaign would have it, was the persecution of a small community through criminal sanctions and all the attendant casual cruelties and humiliations that go with it in the name of religion promoting human rights? The criminalization of homosexuality has no place in any society that guarantees human rights.

The Rev. Eugene Crawford, who's presented himself as a leader of Belize Action on local television, says that all the churches in Belize support the push to keep the laws intact, which is odd, if true, given that both senior representatives of the Church of England and the Vatican have come out against criminalization in recent statements. Shouldn't something be filtering through to the Anglican bishop of Belize and the Catholic bishop of Belize City and Belmopan that supporting old British colonial laws aimed at persecuting gay people isn't in the Christian spirit and is not church policy?

Caleb has already been violently assaulted, and someone posted anonymously the suggestion that if he were to die, the case would go away. Lurking beneath the surface of this is a worrying rhetorical trend seen elsewhere in the Commonwealth that often has violent consequences. It's the sort of grandstanding that Archbishop Tutu has condemned:

We struggled against apartheid in South Africa ... because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about -- our very skin. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given. I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination that homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups.

The key to ending such discrimination, as Sir Shridath Ramphal pointed out, is the law:

As with the abolition of slavery, the decriminalization of homosexuality in our time must be an act of law. We are here to call for that decriminalizing act of law, and by it an end to the wrong we do to our brothers and sisters -- who are, like us, all members of what Dr. Rowan Williams called "the commonwealth of God."

Wherever we are, privacy means privacy, and dignity means dignity, and neither can be interfered with without reasonable cause. Religious beliefs are to be respected, but the full coercive power of the state should not target a vulnerable community whose identity causes no harm to others.