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Victory for human rights  

VOICEOFREASONAlthough there has been increased interest in and debate about human rights and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues of late, it is not often that persons within these communities and their allies get to mark victories close to home.

Last Wednesday provided one such occasion when those who value the ideal of rights for all came out victorious after the Belize Supreme Court handed down a historic decision and it was all as a result of the bravery of Caleb Orozco.

Orozco brought a challenge to section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code which reads “Every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for ten years.” The challenge was founded upon claims that as a gay man, the law was an affront to Orozco’s right to human dignity, personal privacy, right to equality before the law, equal protection of the law and freedom from discrimination.

The law, after this judgment, will now be interpreted to exclude the sexual practices of consenting adults.

The fight has not been easy for Caleb. He bore and perhaps more so now will bear the brunt of personal ridicule and threats to his safety. He also gave up large swaths of his life to bring the challenge and to advance human rights.

Too often, we think of these challenges in zero terms – win or lose – without considering the personal impact of confronting these issues in places like the ones we call home, leading to sacrifices that compromise the peace of mind which the rest of us take for granted.

According to a 2015 New York Times Magazine profile of the activist prior to the judgment, Orozco was forced to take extreme precautions for his own safety, using six padlocks for his home and office, precisely calculating the time it takes to run errands, having his home as his only refuge – all because his stance made him highly visible in an intolerant society.

Speaking of the impact on Orozco’s safety, his mother told the magazine “Every time he walks the street, they promise to kill him. Win or lose the case, they’ll kill him.”

The judgment has within it a few meaningful takeaways. The first of which is a pronouncement on the reference to God in the preambles to constitutions across the region. It must be noted that this reference to God has emboldened a religious opposition to suggest that societies which have God in their Constitutions cannot interpret that founding legal document in such a way as to extend rights and freedoms to a community on the basis of something the power from Most High was opposed to.

The Chief Justice recognized it as a reference to a Christian but opined that its existence cannot be relied upon to negate the more substantive rights and freedoms within the Constitution. By far, it was the most forthright statement on the primacy of interests in this regard, and a critical one as the sections of the religious communities across the Caribbean utilize a right to interested parties and oppose challenges of this kind.

The tentacles of this judgment extend to the fight against HIV/AIDS. It is a victory for HIV/AIDS activists who have bemoaned the existence of buggery laws as an impediment to the fight against the disease. Now that Belize’s law has been struck down, it would hopefully embolden men who have sex with men to be comfortable in being honest with their medical doctors about their sexual practices and thus receive the testing, treatment and services they may require to ensure their comprehensive sexual health.

Perhaps, most of all,  the biggest implication of Orozco vs The Attorney General of Belize is that Orozco’s fighting spirit, incredible resolve and his ultimate success will be an inspiration for those who have already deeply considered the costs and consequences of challenging these laws in their individual countries and need just a little push. In fact, Jamaican attorney and activist Maurice Tomlinson will soon have his day in court as he has brought a similar challenge against his home country’s version of the archaic law.

However, for all of its implications, we must be careful not to assume that this decision means that similar challenges would automatically reach the same result across the region. Our constitutions, though similar, are not the same. Thus, some of the grounds on which this decision rests do not exist in some other regional constitutions. While Belizeans have a right to privacy in their Constitution, which formed part of the decision, Barbadians, for instance, do not.

Legal victory on this issue will require savvy maneuvering and sound claims characterized by cogent arguments. Constitutional reform would not hurt either.

In relation to arguments outside the court, LGBT activists and their allies perhaps need to soften their rhetoric in relation to their adversaries. The use of terms like “bigot”, though accurate, may not be altogether useful in the broader fight to appeal to conscience. The work must be characterized by strategic communication, sound messaging and an appeal to reasonableness through communities that perhaps have never considered the issue deeply. Ireland used this strategy with great success in their winning campaign towards marriage equality in 2015.

Hopefully, this will be catalyst for continued change. We have had the conversations, we know the arguments for and against and perhaps, more importantly, we know the ways our societies come up short. We know the people we fail.

Orozco’s challenge marks a victory and leaves a door towards human rights for all, open a little wider. For that, we as a regional community ought to be grateful and get about the business of building upon the work and firming up progress.

For conceiving of a better society, and paying the very personal price for it, Caleb Orozco is a hero.


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