Opening Remarks by Sir Shridath Ramphal at the showing of the film
‘Call me Kuchu’: London - 28 November 2012
EQUAL MEMBERS OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF GOD
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
My first words must be of thanks to Tim Otty for the generosity of his words of introduction. I have been fortunate to have lived a life in which I was privileged to pursue noble causes like the one that brings us here tonight and in doing so to work with dedicated men and women like Tim. I learnt that together, against the odds, we could prevail. If there is one message I could leave tonight, it is to counsel you that in this matter, too, we shall prevail.
Not so long ago, a noble spirit of our time, with whom I had worked and prevailed in another cause, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said in a United Nations context
‘all over the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. They face violence, torture and criminal sanctions because of how they live and who they love. We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy’.
We make them doubt that they too are children of God ! In his inimical fashion, Desmond Tutu captured the essence of the wrong we perpetrate upon these persecuted people. How akin were his sentiments to those that the Anti Slavery Movement in this country turned into their slogan in the 19th century when they cried out in the name of every slave ‘am I not a man, and a brother’!
The abolitionists were pilloried, but they prevailed. The abomination was not their campaign, as the plantation owners complained, but the evil of slavery itself. The slaves too, every man, woman and child bound in chains, were also ‘children of God’. The blasphemy was in the system.
And was it any different in that cause in which I worked with Archbishop Tutu – the struggle against apartheid. Were not its victims too – almost a whole nation - also, all children of God? Human history is replete with these blasphemies.
When the Lord Bishop of Leicester, spoke recently in the House of Lords, in the debate on the ‘Treatment of Homosexual Men and Women in the Developing World’, he mentioned something which touched a special cord within me when he likened that present treatment to the burning of witches in this country. In my own ancestry, is a line through my mother’s side of the family which goes back to a settler in Barbados who sought his fortunes in Guyana. His name was Nurse, and he was one of the Nurses who we believe came to Barbados from the new England Colonies as descendants of Rebecca Nurse fleeing the abominations of the witch hunts of Massachusetts, and of Salem in particular. Rebecca was hanged – though later pardoned for the innocence of being herself. The hand of evil reaches out beyond our imaginings –and over generations.
Let me add one thing more before I invite you to watch the moving film we shall see.
It is a reminder that for most of the developing countries of the Commonwealth, the desecration of our fellow citizens began in the law. The unreformed law of England was transported through criminal codes by imperial masters to far flung outposts of empire. Starting with the imposition of Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code - criminalising same- sex relations was to spread throughout the empire to the point where today 42 of 54 Commonwealth countries have virtually the same legislation enacted almost as a matter of course by colonial administrators – not by the societies they governed. By the time reform came to Britain in 1967 under the influence of the Wolfenden Report, these jurisdictions were free of British control, and the attitudes that had followed the law remained with the law unreformed. That law is still on our statute books – a relic of empire that has no place in a modern Commonwealth. As with the abolition of slavery, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in our time must be an act of law.
The wisdom of Sir John Wolfenden which he urged on Britain in 1957 is of universal application. I remind you of it:
‘unless a deliberate attempt is made by society, acting through the agency of the law, to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, In brief and crude terms, not the law’s business.’
That wisdom must now inspire us in the developing countries of the Commonwealth to rid ourselves of this archaic legal inheritance. We are here to call for that decriminalising 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.’