Tackling abuse, campaigning for change

Ray CollinsRay Collins on supporting homosexual men and women in the developing world

There’s a coalition I’m extremely proud and it’s the one backing a debate in the Lords today on the treatment of homosexual men and women in the developing world. The fact that all the major parties are united on this subject is something that Britain can celebrate. Life for lesbian, gay and bisexual people has changed significantly in our country over the last 25 years. I am also proud that much of the progress was under the last Labour government. We should not underestimate the problems that remain, particularly the levels of homophobia in our schools. Nevertheless, Britain can rightly now claim to be a beacon to the world of equality for gay people.

Sadly this progress is not reflected in the developing world. Male homosexuality remains illegal in 78 countries worldwide. Female homosexuality is illegal in approximately 50. Homosexuality remains punishable by death in five. From Iraq to Uganda, lesbian and gay people are still systematically persecuted by their communities and security services. Often this prejudice also stops gay people accessing the healthcare, education and employment they need.

Decriminalisation of homosexuality worldwide is so important. But even in countries where it is legal, lesbian and gay people are often subjected to human rights abuses. South Africa was the first country in the world to enshrine the human rights of gay people in its constitution in 1993, yet lesbians still live in fear of so-called ‘corrective’ rape. According to the South African charity Luleki Sizwe, more than ten lesbians every week are raped in this way in Cape Town alone.

In countries closer to home, such as Russia, Ukraine and Serbia, the freedom of expression and association of gay people is regularly denied. We cannot pretend that this doesn’t affect us here. Gay people around the world look to Britain to offer them refuge from this discrimination. Many flee their home countries and seek asylum here.

Our country and its partners have an important role in challenging these human rights abuses but it isn’t without risk; there is increasing opposition to the ‘western’ notion that gay rights are human rights. We need only look at the recent resolution proposed by Russia at the UN Human Rights Council, passed with the support of 25 other states, affirming that ‘traditional values’ should be the basis of human rights. This has given credibility to the abuses perpetuated by anti-gay governments around the world.

It is one of the many reasons why diplomatic action is so important. I welcome the way that the FCO is now working closely with organisations such as Stonewall and the Kaleidoscope Trust on how they can oppose these efforts to legitimise human rights abuses of gay people worldwide.

Placing conditions on the recipients of development aid may also play a role. But we cannot ignore the risk that removing aid from countries for human rights abuses against gay people may affect the poorest in those countries. That would give fuel to those who argue that homosexuality is something being imposed on those countries by the West and could also worsen the situation for gay people. They are likely in any case to be among the poorest and most disadvantaged in countries that receive aid, unable to access jobs, education or healthcare.

Nor can we ignore the fact that we are not the only ‘suppliers’ in the aid marketplace. It would be disastrous if we pushed recipient countries into the arms of donors such as Iran and China, countries clearly less concerned about the human rights of gay people. We must not lose what influence we already have in these countries.

Real progress on gay equality will ultimately come from grassroots movements. But we need to help create the conditions where those local gay rights movements can emerge.

Through aid we need to push to remove the barriers to groups forming and mobilising. Through diplomacy we need to challenge the attempts to legitimise those barriers. Through our embassies we must share the experiences of NGOs who have campaigned for real change for gay people. And through the UK Borders Agency we must provide lesbian and gay people with a real safe haven when they flee from persecution.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 25th October 2012


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