Nick Herbert MP: Strong and resolute diplomatic pressure should continue towards countries that intensify persecution of LGBT+ people
Today in the House of Commons we mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia and recognise that there is still more to do as a global community to take a stand against this prejudice, says Nick Herbert MP.
The progress made in the West on LGBT+ equality in the past decade makes it easy to forget that we are living in two worlds.
For every country that enshrines non-discrimination in law there is another that legitimises horrific violence against minority groups in the streets and in their homes.
For every LGBT+ person free to live their life openly and without prejudice, there is another fearing persecution if they dare to live in truth.
Although 26 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, 70 countries still punish same-sex activity as a criminal offence, and 11 of these carry the death penalty as a maximum sentence.
Today in the House of Commons we mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (which actually falls tomorrow, 17 May, when the House is not sitting) and recognise that there is still more to do as a global community to take a stand against this prejudice. A
s Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights I oversaw the release of a landmark report in 2016 that put forward several recommendations for the UK Government to drive international action. Chief among them was the call for strategic high-level leadership, co-ordinated across central government to champion LGBT+ rights globally.
Since the report, the Government has continued to take significant and welcome steps in the right direction.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last year, the Prime Minister apologised for the UK’s role in criminalising same-sex sexual acts in its former colonies, and affirmed that we will support efforts to reform these laws across the Commonwealth, where homosexuality remains a criminal offence in two-thirds of member nations. The Government has since pledged £5.6 million to support civil society organisations in Commonwealth countries looking to repeal discriminatory laws, in addition to £1.1 million for LGBT+ projects through the Foreign Office Magna Carta Fund. The UK has also recently assumed co-chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition with Argentina, and will host a major international conference on LGBT+ rights next year.
These commitments have the potential to bring about tangible, positive change, and we must ensure the Government follows through on them. Today’s debate provides an opportunity to restate what needs to be done.
The Equal Rights Coalition is a nascent intergovernmental group which has great potential to drive forward and co-ordinate the promotion of LGBT+ rights.
The Government is understandably focused on other major foreign policy concerns at the moment, but it must give its co-chairmanship of the ERC (which is about to begin) and the conference next year its full attention. Inviting broad input from civil society groups and key players in the private sector could help set a meaningful policy agenda and common strategy for global reform, while the conference needs planning now.
The Commonwealth also has a vital role to play in influencing change. In some countries there has been real progress. The recent victory in India, where civil society groups succeeded in their legal case against the country’s anti-homosexuality colonial law, is a seismic moment for decriminalisation. The Indian Penal Code was used as a template for laws in other British colonies and UK support for civil society groups looking to bring forward decriminalisation cases elsewhere is vital to this momentum.
But other Commonwealth countries are going backwards.
The alarming recent introduction of the death penalty for gay people in Brunei will thankfully no longer be enforced, but the Sharia law remains in place, and pressure must continue to ensure that LGBT+ citizens are protected. Prejudice against LGBT+ people in countries like Tanzania increasingly interferes with the successful delivery of healthcare programmes to tackle AIDS. Politicians in Bermuda have attempted to roll back a court judgement that permitted same-sex marriages, and its government has appealed the decision at every opportunity.
There have been worrying reverses elsewhere in the world, too. The horrifying persecution and torture of LGBT+ Chechens remains a grave concern for which the Russian government must answer.
We should, in common with countries like Canada, offer support and if necessary a home to those fleeing from violence and oppression. The clampdown by police on peaceful Pride events in Turkey is a worrying development, and in neighbouring Armenia a trans activist has – incredibly – received death threats from parliamentarians. LGBT+ Brazilians fear repression from a new president who defines himself against their concerns. Politicians in Indonesia fuel moral panic which has led to raids in gay bars, public humiliation of transwomen and a spike in the HIV rate among its LGBT+ citizens. Only three countries in the world have imposed nationwide bans on conversion therapy.
Strong and resolute diplomatic pressure should continue to be applied to countries that intensify their persecution of LGBT+ people. And we should remember that, while the most egregious breaches of human rights occurs in other countries, there is still work to do in the UK, as there is many other western countries. Northern Ireland does not have marriage equality. Trans people experience serious discrimination here, as they do worldwide. We still need to tackle bullying in schools and attitudes in high profile sports, especially soccer. Societal homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in all communities, from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas, means that LGBT+ people remain disproportionately prone to homelessness, employment discrimination and sexual exploitation.
Our fights are frequently won by working through multilateral international institutions. The UK has supported the reappointment of an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the United Nations. Earlier this week, Equalities Minister Baroness Williams pledged at the IDAHOT+ Forum that the UK will by next year meet all action points from the Government’s LGBT Action Plan, which includes several international commitments alongside a positive domestic agenda.
These are welcome commitments in the struggle against LGBT+ discrimination, but moving forward we must also recognise and challenge the root causes of prejudice if we are to encourage lasting change.
This is why the APPG on Global LGBT Rights will be launching a new inquiry next week that will investigate the relationship between religion and attitudes towards LGBT+ people, with an aim to understanding both what drives homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in certain religious groups, and the positive role that religious communities can play in promoting human dignity and tackling prejudice.
The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia has become an important annual opportunity to restate our commitment to promoting LGBT+ rights, to acknowledge where progress has been made, and to identify where discrimination still exists.
With the UK’s global links, our proud record in promoting human rights, and a real, cross-party commitment to deploy resources and use our soft power, few countries are in a stronger position to influence change for the better on LGBT+ rights than ours.
Whatever the foreign policy distractions, we must continue to lead in the fight for equality.
The Rt Hon Nick Herbert CBE MP is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights and Conservative MP for Arundel & South Downs.