A prominent international human rights advocate last night attacked the Commonwealth for its ‘muted’ response to abuses against people based on issues around sexuality.

Former Australian high court judge Michael Kirby (pictured), who has served with Commonwealth, international and UN organisations, said the ‘time had come to realise racism is not the only source of oppression and wickedness. People are being oppressed because of their disability, sexual orientation and gender identification’.

Speaking at the Law Society’s headquarters in an event organised by the Human Dignity Trust, Kirby said the judiciary played a key role in upholding human rights.

A number of high court decisions in Commonwealth countries had brought ‘little rays of light – from judges sitting in the high court of Kenya, Bermuda reaching decisions in particular cases [and] looking at the jurisprudence of Commonwealth countries’.

Botswana, for instance, accepted an application by a gay organisation to register as a non-governmental organisation, Malaysia had struck down a cross-dressing prohibition as unconstitutional and Bermuda approved the right of a same-sex couple to adopt a child, he said.  

However, Kirby criticised the leadership shown by the Commonwealth Secretariat on the issue of sexuality, branding it ‘really pathetic’.

He said: ‘When you get a challenge, you have got to take steps to meet the challenge, and to promote fundamental and universal human rights… The Commonwealth must have a stance, a position. Unfortunately, at the moment, it’s very muted and very quiet. That’s not good enough.’

Without leadership, Kirby said, ‘people will suffer great wrongs. If that’s the “Commonwealth way”, an increasing number of Commonwealth countries will say that’s a way [they] do not want to travel’.

The Commonwealth Secretariat said it welcomed Kirby’s ‘valuable advocacy’ of human rights concerns, especially in championing non-discrimination ‘which is of such crucial importance to the Commonwealth’.

A spokesperson said: ‘The Commonwealth Secretary-General and Secretariat have a role to promote and provide practical support that advances human rights for all Commonwealth citizens in a progressive and inclusive way, working specifically with member governments and national human rights bodies.

‘Other actors from the wider community also have complementary roles to play, including the important contributions of civil society, non-governmental organisations, professional associations, and law-makers.

‘We are therefore also very grateful to the [Law Society and the Human Dignity Trust] for creating this special opportunity to hear Hon Michael Kirby’s stimulating insights.’

Kirby was a justice of the High Court of Australia between 1996-2009, and president of the Court of Appeal of New South Wales and the Solomon Islands.

He was president of the International Commission of Jurists, special representative of the secretary general of the UN for human rights in Cambodia, and recently chair of the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry on human rights abuses in North Korea.