Diversity expert, Dr Felicity Daly, is wary of Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ vision in light of the merger of the world’s leading aid agency into the Foreign Office and hopes this new ‘super department’ does not forget Britain’s legacy and unfinished business.

A new vision of a ‘Global Britain’ was revealed in the UK parliament on 16 June when Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement that the Department for International Development will merge with the Foreign Office. Arguing that ‘distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated’, Johnson announced that a new department called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be formed and led by the foreign secretary. 

Following the shock announcement only one MP asked about Britain’s role in the Commonwealth. Due to the postponement of the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which was due to open on 22 June in Rwanda, the UK is serving an extended term as Commonwealth chair in office. The prime minister replied that “the Commonwealth is a massive powerful force for good. The 54 countries have a shared tradition and shared ambition to encourage free trade which we will be asserted at the Kigali summit when we can hold it next year.” 

The concept of ‘shared tradition’ obscures the damaging consequences of British rule. While 36 of 54 Commonwealth member states still hold colonial era penal codes that criminalise same-sex sexual behavior, state sponsored homophobia is no longer a tradition shared by the UK. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) has led scholarship on the struggle for decriminalisaiton of same-sex sexual behaviour and relationships globally, and efforts to uphold the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and other sexual and gender minority (LGBT+) people in the Commonwealth.

I joined ICWS last year to develop the research agenda for a development project endeavoring to improve the wellbeing and socio-economic inclusion of LGBT+ people in five dynamic cities in sub-Saharan Africa, four of them in Commonwealth countries. Our research team has sought to contribute to evidence that in these cities, LGBT+ people face violence and discrimination, social marginalisation, exclusion from education and economic opportunities, and suffer with minority stress and poorer health outcomes.  

While the Johnson neglected to elaborate on what the UK is doing as chair in office, other than planning to use the next CHOGM as a trade summit, pan-Commonwealth activism continues. On Wednesday 24 June, during the week the CHOGM was meant to take place, ICWS will hold a day-long online conference with six panels highlighting issues that Commonwealth leaders seem to have the most resistance to discussing at their gatherings or progressing domestically. 

A panel on LGBT+ rights will feature three experienced activists from Belize, Malta and South Africa. They will help us to recognise that CHOGMs have provided a forum for LGBT+ people to hold Commonwealth leaders to account on the unfinished business of overturning British colonial law. 

Meeting on the margins of the disastrous 2013 heads meeting LGBT+ activists, who had intervened at the UN Human Rights Council, highlighted that Commonwealth spaces couldn’t be let off the hook given the preponderance of criminalising countries in the mix. They formed The Commonwealth Equality Network(TCEN) which comprises LGBT+ organisations from 45 countries and gained accreditation to the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2017. 

By the 2015 CHOGM, important synergies were available given Malta, then chair, had introduced sweeping domestic reforms to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. For the first time LGBT+ activists made interventions in the People’s Forum and the Youth Forum preceding the CHOGM. I was honoured, yet dismayed, to be the only speaker tasked with representing the perspective of lesbian and bisexual women and trans people at the Commonwealth’s first ever Women’s Forum.  

This momentum continued when the largest ever delegation of LGBT+ activists from Commonwealth countries coalesced at the 2018 CHOGM chaired by the UK in London and made numerous interventions across the summit programme. Their impact intensified when then prime minister, Theresa May, expressed “deep regret” to Commonwealth leaders for laws criminalising sexuality and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.”

That legacy is the reality of the ‘shared tradition’ that Global Britain must redress. In fact, this is the UK’s responsibility as current co-chair of The Equal Rights Coalition, a multilateral forum to promote the human rights of LGBT+ people globally through diplomacy and development. 

At this moment when diplomacy, development and Commonwealth leadership are regarded collectively, the threats LGBT+ face are rising. As identified in a TCEN report , the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated LGBT+ people’s pre-existing social and economic inequalities. And in a growing number of African countries LGBT+ communities have been scapegoated for the spread of SARS CoV 2. 

It remains to be seen how the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office decides what to prioritise, but we hope this new “super department” created by Boris Johnson does not forget Britain’s legacy and unfinished business. 

Dr Felicity Daly is a researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. She is also an adjunct fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at LaTrobe University, and a member of the Research Advisory Board of Open for Business. Previously she served as the executive director of the Kaleidoscope Trust which is a founding member of The Commonwealth Equality Network. Her research and advocacy have focused on: realising the right to health and enhancing well-being; advancing women’s rights, particularly of sexual minority women, and promoting their autonomy and sexual health; and the inclusion of those marginalised based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics in economic and social development.