Caleb’s victory for the Commonwealth

By Maurice Tomlinson, Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

August 16, 2016

Caleb Orozco at 46th OAS General Assembly in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, June 12, 2016.
Caleb Orozco at 46th OAS General Assembly in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, June 12, 2016.

When Caleb Orozco, whom I met at an Organization of American States General Assembly in Panama in 2007, decided to be the claimant in a challenge to the Belize anti-sodomy law, I was elated but a bit nervous for him. Belize is one of only a few Caribbean countries where a direct challenge to this British colonially imposed statute could be mounted, since in most of the other states, unique constitutional arrangements appear to save the law from any judicial review. However, even in Belize, where such impediment was absent, the difficulty was finding a claimant. The individual and their family would come under intense scrutiny and endure abuse because of the high-profile nature of the case. However, Caleb didn’t hesitate to commit. And as expected, he was met with a calculated and coordinated attack by the powerful religious groups in Belize who called him and his organization, UNIBAM, every derogatory name in the book. Despite the usual hateful rhetoric, Caleb kept his head up. In fact, he became even more determined with each attack. And after he was physically assaulted, he successfully sought and secured the prosecution of the perpetrator.

At Caleb’s request, I was honoured to lobby my previous organization, AIDS-Free World, to provide financial support to his lawyers. I also gladly accepted an invitation to visit Belize and provide advocacy sessions for the local groups that were supporting his case. This was before I knew of Belize’s ban on the entry of ”homosexuals,” which I subsequently challenged at the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Perhaps the greatest indignity meted out to Caleb was the three-year-plus wait for justice that he had to endure. The Supreme Court of Belize took that long after fully hearing Caleb’s case in 2013 to finally deliver its judgment on August 10, 2016. Thankfully, it was a resounding victory that has sent shock waves across the region. Although the decision is not binding on other courts in the region, it will provide very persuasive precedent. Among other things, Chief Justice Benjamin ruled that the anti-sodomy law violates Caleb’s constitutional rights, which are common across the Caribbean, and he also declared that majority religious views must not trump these fundamental rights. The negative health impact of this archaic law was also highlighted by the court, which found that the fight against HIV is hampered when LGBTI people are criminalized.

As the claimant in a constitutional challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law, I was greatly pleased with the decision in Caleb’s case. I can also relate to the price that he has had to pay. I previously acted as counsel for another claimant challenging this same law but he withdrew after threats to his life and his family. I therefore became the claimant and I was able to do this because, like Caleb, I am so outed in my country that I have very little to hide. My own parents are very supportive and, perhaps most importantly, I am a permanent resident in Canada, which allows me the flexibility to come and go from Jamaica, where homophobic violence is significantly worse than Belize. I also work for a wonderful organization, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, that is supporting my case, and through them I also have invaluable access to Canadian pro bono counsel. Jamaica’s 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, that I will rely on in my matter, is largely based on the Canadian Charter of Rights, and so Canadian jurisprudence will be of great relevance.

Caleb and his brilliant legal team have won a victory for the entire Anglophone Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth where the vast majority of states still retain these British colonially imposed laws. We must now leverage this jurisprudence to protect the rights of all the people of the Commonwealth.