The Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, spoke out for gay rights yesterday in his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth People’s Forum.

Speaking in Perth, Australia, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting, Mr Sharma said Commonwealth countries should “embrace difference” and commit to “tolerance, respect and understanding”.

He said: “We recall the 2009 Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles, which includes a clear commitment to tolerance, respect and understanding. This means we embrace difference, and that includes sexual identity.

“Discrimination and criminalisation on grounds of sexual orientation is at odds with our values and I have had occasion to refer to this in the context of our law-related conferences.”

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said the remarks were a “tacit rebuke” to the many Commonwealth countries which still criminalise homosexuality.

He said: “We welcome Kamalesh Sharma’s defence of gay human rights. He has shown strong leadership by making it clear that homophobic persecution is incompatible with the Commonwealth’s values of equality, human rights and non-discrimination.

“This is the first time that any Commonwealth Secretary General has ever condemned discrimination and criminalisation on the grounds of sexual identity at the CPF.”

He added: “We hope Mr Sharma will again make history by repeating his commitment to gay human rights in his keynote address on Friday to the Commonwealth presidents and prime ministers.”

Last week, retired High Court judge Michael Kirby, the Australian representative on CHOGM advisory group The Eminent Persons Group, said Commonwealth countries will be asked to repeal anti-gay laws to help combat HIV rates.

The vast majority of the 54 Commonwealth countries retain colonial-era bans on homosexuality and some have been accused of persecuting LGBT people.