Belize strikes down anti-sodomy laws
BELMOPAN - The Belize Supreme Court on Wednesday made a historic ruling in favour of gay activist Caleb Orozco, and has struck down the country’s anti-sodomy law. This is the first case launched in the Caribbean and the first case where the sodomy laws have been overturned.
The case was brought to court in 2010, heard in 2013 and the ruling came on Wednesday. The long process has been spearheaded by Caribbean allies, activists, advocates, academics, and legal experts.
Orozco challenged the law claiming that it infringes on the ‘Protections of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms’ of the individual guaranteed by Belize’s constitution.
Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, presiding over the court, accepted Orozco’s challenges on all counts, including:
• The law is a violation of the rights to dignity, privacy, equality and non-discrimination on grounds of sex;
• There is no public morality justification;
• International legal obligations must be complied with;
• The law must be modified;
• The costs were awarded to the claimant;
• Section 53 of the Criminal Code will be amended to exclude penalty of sexual acts between two consenting adults of the same gender.
“The decision today is deeply fulfilling, I am elated for myself, but more so for all of LGBTIQ people in Belize. The Supreme Court set a historic precedent in the country, and in the Caribbean more widely, by upholding the dignity and equality of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. Though I know much has yet to be done to change attitudes in my country, this is a momentous step, and I could not be more proud,” said Orozco, in response to the ruling.
In the groundbreaking decision, the court also extended its positive ruling to declare that the definition of “sex” in Section 16 (3) of the Constitution, outlining anti-discrimination, also includes sexual orientation.
“We are hopeful that this will contribute to a shift in the Caribbean as a whole, where ten countries still have remnants of colonial sodomy laws. But the laws are only part of what needs to change. We need a stronger movement across the region that can push for a change in societal attitudes. This historic win will push us forward!” said Kenita Placide, Caribbean advisor of OutRight Action International.
Orozco, who serves as executive director of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), challenged Section 53 of the 1981 Criminal Code of Belize claiming it to be unconstitutional, and violating his right to human dignity, privacy, equality before the law, and freedom of expression. Section 53 states that “every person who has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal shall be liable to imprisonment for ten years”.
While the exact definition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is unclear, is has been interpreted to encompass anal sex between two men or between a man and a woman, regardless of consent.
Notably, Section 53 of the Criminal Code is a remnant of Belize’s colonial past. The code was amended in 1944, before that time only non-consensual sex between two persons of the same sex was criminalized.
Although the law was seldom enforced, is has been argued that the simple presence of the law has contributed to harmful effects in broader society and fed into the homophobic rhetoric of the church.
Belize is a country where the highly religious public is openly hostile towards LGBTIQ people, and social stigma and animosity against the community is high. The Roman Catholic Church of Belize, the Belize Church of England Corporate Body, and the Belize Evangelical Association of Churches were all interested parties in the litigation and rallied against Orozco’s challenge.
Since filing the case Orozco has been subject to even greater public humiliation, threats, and bodily harm, including being beaten over the head with a metal rod and having his teeth broken. The word “Orozco” has even been added to the list of homophobic slurs yelled at gay men on the streets.
Despite the personal attacks, Orozco recognizes the importance that the case has carried for the LGBTIQ society in Belize.
“Taking the case to court was a call to action for the LGBTIQ community in Belize and beyond. The community started coming together and organizing, recognizing that standing in silence and allowing injustices to prevail could no longer be the norm. We had support from so many people from within the country and internationally; this victory is all of ours to share. We have won in so many ways; we are stronger than ever before, but we are nowhere near done,” Orozco added.
Wednesday’s decision is a landmark moment in Belizean history, and for the Caribbean, and signifies a commitment from the government to protect the privacy and rights of LGBTIQ Belizeans. However, much work has yet to be done to ensure that society follows suit and that discrimination against LGBTIQ people diminishes.
According to Maria Sjodin, deputy executive director of OutRight Action International, this challenge extends beyond the borders of Belize.
She stated, “The court ruling in Belize means that the number of countries that criminalize same-sex behaviour is now down to 72, and hopefully this downward trend can continue. But it is important to remember that laws are only part of what impacts people's lives - the fight to change societies must continue worldwide and this can only happen with strong LGBTIQ movements.”
The ruling was also welcomed by UNAIDS, saying that this is an encouraging step forward for a country that has already demonstrated a relatively high level of positive attitudes regarding homosexuals.
A 2013 poll commissioned by UNAIDS found that two out of every three Belizeans were either accepting or tolerant of homosexuals (68%). In addition, three of four respondents agreed that people should not be treated differently on the basis of their sexual orientation (75%).
“The ruling of the Belize High Court echoes the widespread public opinion in Belize that people should be treated with dignity and equality, regardless of who they love,” said UNAIDS director of the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Support Team, Dr Cesar Nuñez.
This development comes at a critical juncture in the HIV response. Through the Sustainable Development Goals the world has committed to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030. In order to do so, member states have pledged to ensure that no one is left behind.
For gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men in most of the English-speaking Caribbean, discriminatory and punitive laws regarding sex between men hamper access to HIV and STI prevention and treatment and other social services by reinforcing discriminatory attitudes. Many people are reluctant to reveal their same sex behaviour due to fear of discrimination, harassment and violence. This ruling removes a key stumbling block to gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men accessing HIV testing and treatment services.
UNAIDS congratulated Orozco, the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) and other supporting civil society organisations, for their courage, leadership and resilience over the last six years.
UNAIDS also recognised the initiative of the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP) to promote human rights, equality and social justice in the Caribbean through judicial review.
“Without the solidarity and persistence of these stakeholders this victory for equality would not have been possible,” Nuñez said. “We encourage civil society to continue to mobilize on behalf of those who are most vulnerable and to be the voice of the voiceless.”
UNAIDS advocates for the removal of punitive laws which are detrimental to the AIDS response. This must be combined with strategies to increase testing, treatment and treatment retention rates, particularly among young people, sex workers, transgender people, gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men and other key populations.