Just May last month, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court gave the green light to a bill seeking to decriminalize homosexuality, a significant move forward for the South Asian country. The private members bill, from MP Premnath C Dolawatte, was ruled ‘not unconstitutional’ after hearing more than a dozen petitions on both sides of the argument, Reuters reported. Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said,
“The Supreme Court is of the opinion that the bill as a whole or as any provision thereof is not inconsistent with the constitution.”
The great news is surely one of the highlights for Pride Month 2023 as LGBTQ+ rights activists in Sri Lanka have been campaigning for years to change the law in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by a prison sentence and a fine. Kaveesha Coswatte, from justice organization iProbono, told Reuters that the Supreme Court decision was a historic development, creating “hope towards real change” and that the “door [was] finally open.” Coswatte added, “This Supreme Court decision is major for the community in terms of any kind of progress they have seen over the last couple of years.”
Homosexuality is criminalized in Sri Lanka under Section 365 of the 1883 Penal Code inherited from British colonial rule. Section 365 punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with up to 10 years in prison and a fine. Section 365A punishes “any act of gross indecency” with up to two years in prison and a fine. During a panel discussion organized by APCOM in November 2022, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera explained the history of the law and how these provisions are widely understood to criminalize consensual sex between same-sex partners. Rosanna also brings forth several case examples of how the law continues to be enforced by police up to recent years.
The event titled “Advancing LGBTQI Rights: Decriminalisation in Asia” was co-hosted by APCOM, the Embassy of Canada in Thailand, and Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT). It featured Rosanna, Executive Director of Equal Ground, a community-based organization that advocates for political and social rights for LGBTQI+ people in Sri Lanka, and in the same panel with Bryan Choong from Singapore. Bryan is one of the key persons whose years long activism resulted in the repeal of Singapore’s colonial-era ban on gay sex, under section 377A of the penal code. The historic moment took place in November 2022, effectively making it legal to be homosexual in the city-state.
At the same event, Prof Vitit Muntarbhorn delivered a very inspiring opening remark which suggested having the leadership involved in repealing prejudice and discriminatory laws are very important. The UN specialist rapporteur and former UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity also talked about the relevance of expunging previous criminal records of victims who were subject to LGBTQI+ criminalization. He argued,
“We need to erase them and backdate them in order to erase the stigmatization and taboos.”