Belize court upholds finding that LGBT people are protected by non-discrimination laws, major victory for human rights
It’s been a battle that started in 2010 and ended in 2019, rounding off the decade with a win for LGBT+ activists who tirelessly worked to get the ban dropped.
On Monday, December 30, 2019, The Court of Appeal delivered a judgment denying the Belize Government’s appeal of a 2016 ruling decriminalizing adult consensual same-sex relations.
The three-judge bench reaffirmed the decision of the Chief Justice in 2016 that Section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code – which criminalized ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ and disproportionately discriminated against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Belize – contravened the constitutional rights to dignity, equality before the law, privacy, freedom of expression and non-discrimination on the grounds of sex, and was therefore void.
Importantly, Justice Samuel Lungole-Awich stated unequivocally in Monday’s judgment that the Constitutional prohibition on sex discrimination includes sexual orientation discrimination, and that this “gives the word sex in ss. 3 and 16 of the Constitution a purposive and generous meaning for protecting human rights. Accordingly, we hold that s. 53 of the Criminal Code is a law which discriminates on the basis of sex…and is void to that extent.” The court further found that sexual expression is part of the Constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Téa Braun, Director of the Human Dignity Trust, which made key submissions before the court, applauded the judgment and said, ‘Today’s decision from the Court of Appeal is part of a growing international trend recognizing that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is fundamentally rooted in gender stereotyping. The court rightly applied international human rights law to its interpretation of the Constitution.’
‘We hope the government will accept the Court’s decision and focus its full attention now on eradicating discrimination against all marginalized groups in Belize.’
In August 2016, Kenneth Benjamin, the Chief Justice of Belize, ruled that Section 53 of the Criminal Code was unconstitutional, and ordered that it no longer apply to consensual sexual acts between adults in private.
The Belizean Government admirably accepted the Court’s overall ruling of decriminalization. The Attorney General nevertheless appealed against the findings on freedom of expression and non-discrimination, after pressure from church groups.
The Roman Catholic Church, an interested party in the litigation, filed an appeal against the entire 2016 ruling, but withdrew its appeal in March 2018.
The Respondent in the case, Caleb Orozco of the United Belize Advocacy Movement, opposed both grounds of the appeal on the basis that they were academic in nature and would have no effect in practice, and that they were in any event of no merit. The Human Dignity Trust, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the International Commission of Jurists jointly intervened in support of Mr Orozco before both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal and made extensive successful legal submissions on the correct interpretation of sex discrimination and freedom of expression.
The October 2018 hearing at the Court of Appeal involved consideration of a range of decisions from the United Nations, the Caribbean Court of Justice, the Indian Supreme Court, and the appellate courts in the U.S., all of which support the view that the prohibition on sex discrimination encapsulates sexual orientation discrimination.
Mr Orozco said, ‘This ruling shows the strength of strategic approaches to communication and community mobilisation used across the Caribbean. We are proud that Belize is raising the bar of what is possible in advancing LGBT rights across the region.’
Mr Orozco is represented by a respected local and regional legal team comprising Chris Hamel-Smith SC, Lisa Shoman SC and Professor Westmin James. The interveners were represented pro bono by Leslie Mendez of Marine Parade Chambers Belize, Timothy Otty QC – a leading barrister at Blackstone Chambers and the founder of HDT – and Conway Blake of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
Many Caribbean activists hope that as more nations turn the tides against homophobic colonial traditions, it’ll create a domino effect.