The House of Lords held a debate on Thursday 25 October on a question posed by Lord Lexden. He asked Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the treatment of homosexual men and women in the developing world.
Changing Attitude’s interest in the debate is twofold. Firstly, members of our groups in Nigeria and Kenya are directly affected by punitive legislation in each country, as are LGBTI Christian friends of Changing Attitude in many other African and Caribbean Commonwealth countries.
The second interest is that the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, spoke strongly in the debate in favour of decriminalisation and in the necessity for the Church to extend an unequivocal welcome to LGBTI people.
I’m reproducing Lord Lexden’s introduction to the debate below in full, and further down, the Bishop of Leicester’s speech. The full debate can be read here beginning three quarters of the way down down the page.
My Lords, I bring before your Lordships an international issue of great importance. Injustice and inhumanity stalk our world and, sadly, they take many forms. I have sought this short debate in order to draw attention to one of their cruellest and most pervasive manifestations: the gross discrimination suffered by homosexuals in many countries of the world.
Millions of our fellow human beings today are liable to arrest, conviction and punishment-punishment of great severity-because of their sexual orientation and that alone. Their human rights, enshrined in internationally agreed conventions for the benefit of all mankind, are breached many times over. Equality, privacy, dignity, freedom of expression, assembly and association, freedom from torture and from inhuman and degrading treatment-all these and other rights which form part of the established code of human rights law are being flouted in many countries where homosexuals are concerned.
Under international law, popular dislike or moral disapproval of homosexuality can never be a sufficient justification for setting aside human rights. As the head of the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, Chief Justice Gubbay, stated, in 2000, as regards equality rights:
“The courts cannot be dictated to by public opinion … Those who are entitled to claim the protection of rights include … the marginalised members of society”.
Yet in many developing countries, homosexuals are marginalised, unprotected and oppressed because of the lack of respect for their human rights in the laws under which they live. In at least 76 countries, consensual, adult, same-sex relations are criminal offences for either men or women, or in some cases both. Punishment can be death in seven countries, including Iran, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia. In six others, including Malawi and Malaysia, same-sex relations are punishable by hard labour or by corporal punishment.
Long terms of imprisonment, often far in excess of 10 years, can be imposed on homosexuals in 38 countries, including Jamaica, Barbados, Kenya, Gambia, Tanzania, Libya, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even if they are not enforced rigorously, these grossly discriminatory laws create a climate of grave anxiety and fear for homosexuals in the many countries where they are on the statute books. It is a climate in which violence and persecution can flourish virtually unchecked. Its victims cannot seek protection from the state, for the state regards them as criminals, and the forces of law and order may well collude with their persecutors. Many instances of persecution and suffering have been carefully recorded and documented by the Human Dignity Trust, an international non-governmental organisation dedicated to challenging discriminatory laws against homosexuals, with which I have worked closely in preparing for this debate.
Here are just two case studies. The first relates to Uganda where a young man, Toby, was attacked at school for being gay. The police were called; they beat him severely. Returning home, he told his parents about his sexuality. Fearing for his safety, they hid him in the attic of the house. That night a mob, accompanied by the police, came to the house. Unable to find Toby, they turned on his family. When Toby came out of hiding after the attackers had departed, he found, inhis words, “The house covered in blood and his own family, his mother, father, two brothers and two sisters dead in the sitting room. They had all been shot”. Toby now lives in the United Kingdom.
My second shocking story, which comes from the Human Dignity Trust’s thick files of cases, is set in Jamaica whose criminal code prohibits sex between men. A wave of persecution and violence has been suffered by gay people connected with the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, known as J-Flag. Its co-founder was brutally murdered in 2004. But a 30 year-old social worker, Gareth, refused to be deterred from working for the organisation, despite sustained threats. “No matter where you go”, he was told, “we are going to find you, kill you and burn J-Flag down”. Yet for years Gareth remained in Jamaica, committed to promoting the welfare of the homosexual community. Eventually, with many misgivings, he felt forced to claim asylum in Canada. The Human Dignity Trust is now bringing a case on behalf of Gareth and J-Flag before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Last week, Gareth and a group from Jamaica came to Westminster. It was a privilege to listen to them describing in calm, resolute and unemotional terms their determination to secure humane and just treatment for homosexuals in the land they love.
There are many Tobys and many Gareths in many countries in our world today. They are the inevitable consequence of laws which criminalise homosexuality. The Organisation for Refuge Asylum and Migration has this year estimated that more than 175 million people-nearly three times the population of the United Kingdom-live in circumstances where they are at risk of persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But as we grieve and as we protest at this state of affairs, we must also remember where the laws criminalising homosexuals in many countries came from. They came from Britain, which alone among the European empires of the 19th century possessed a criminal code under which homosexuals faced severe penalties just for expressing their love and physical desire for one another.
In India in the 1820s, Thomas Macaulay, later the greatest of all the Whig historians, devised a legal system which incorporated Britain’s then firm and unbending intolerance of homosexuality. The Indian penal code became the model for the legal systems of Britain’s colonies in most of Africa and Asia. The love that had freely spoken its name and found expression in their native cultures became, in the definition of their new British-imported law, an unnatural offence. Thus it is that today, 42 of the 54 nations of the Commonwealth criminalise same-sex relations.
A wind of change has blown briskly and steadily in other parts of the world since that remarkable turning-point in 1959; the publication of the Wolfenden report. The strength of the movement for change has been powerfully assisted by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, most notably, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, by the case brought by my friend Jeff Dudgeon which extended the legalisation of homosexuality to Northern Ireland. The crimes for which homosexuals were once punished for simply being homosexuals no longer exist in any Europeancountry from the Republic of Ireland in the west to Vladivostok in the Russian Federation in the east, although the threat of discriminatory laws remains in some parts of the east. They have also been eliminated from the older countries of the Commonwealth.
Voices of compassion are being heard strongly in the world today, particularly in the Christian churches. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has affirmed,
“the equality of all human beings, ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’”.
The Anglican Church of Southern Africa has made clear its opposition to the criminalisation of homosexuality. In 2008, the Vatican’s delegation to the UN General Assembly called for the elimination of,
“every sign of unjust discrimination towards homosexual persons”.
Many people the world over are now asking the Churches to put their position beyond all doubt by saying simply and clearly: criminalisation is wrong.
How is the message of justice and compassion that is coming from so many quarters, particularly our Churches, to be translated into action? It has been, and continues to be, done through the courts of law. Judicial challenges have helped to overturn laws criminalising homosexuality in countries as diverse as Fiji, Ecuador, the United States and India. This veryday, a challenge is being mounted in the Belize courts supported by the Human Dignity Trust, the International Commission of Jurists and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. Their leading counsel is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, who is as a result unable to contribute to this debate as he wanted to do. He has authorised me to say on his behalf that “the case, if successful, is likely to have an important impact on similar laws in other former British territories. In my view there is no conceivable legal or moral justification for continuing in the 21st century to criminalise homosexual activity between adults. To treat this as criminal conduct has no single redeeming feature”.
The time has come for all the world’s principal international institutions to commit themselves unequivocally to this important cause. The United Nations has this year given a ringing endorsement of the case for urgent action. Speaking in March, the Secretary-General gave powerful support to decriminalisation. Clear plans are now needed to put his strong and most welcome words into practice.
Here in Britain, we look naturally to the Commonwealth too, not just because of historic ties, but because under this Government it features more prominently in our foreign policy. In 2010-11 an Eminent Persons Group was established to consider the future of the Commonwealth. Its report called for the repeal of laws criminalising homosexuality. Their existence, the report said, called into question,
“the commitment of member states to the Commonwealth’s fundamental values and principles, including fundamental human rights and non-discrimination”.
This is probably the first debate to be held in a national legislature on the global persecution and criminalisation of the LGBT community. I pay tribute to all the organisations and campaign groups which strive for the full application of human rights to the LGBT community. On many occasions, the Government have underlined their strong belief that compassionand justice must prevail. I ask my noble friend the Minister to make it clear in her reply to the debate what action the Government are taking now, and whether they are considering fresh initiatives to help rid the world of laws which have sustained inhumanity and injustice for far too long.
The Lord Bishop of Leicester:
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for spelling out so powerfully and persuasively the scale and horror of the threats faced by many gay people around the world. Noble Lords will be aware that in 1967 it was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who spoke in this House to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country, thus making a clear distinction in British law between a moral and a criminal issue.
As noble Lords will now know, no such distinction exists in many parts of the world and, as a result, people are suffering horrendous abuse and even death for being who they are and loving who they love. Many of us have met people who have shared the most disturbing personal stories, including a very small number who have been granted asylum on grounds of sexual orientation in this country.
Others in this debate have rehearsed the ways in which laws criminalising same-sex sexual activity between adults have been repeatedly found in international law to violate fundamental human rights, and this debate serves also to highlight effectively the way in which criminalisation gives rise to persecution. I want, however, to concentrate on the way in which discriminatory interference in the private sexual conduct of consenting adults is an affront to the fundamental Christian values of human dignity, tolerance and equality.
It is of course no secret, as others have made clear, that on the ethics of homosexual practice the churches in general and the Anglican communion bishops in particular are deeply divided, but that cannot and must not be any basis for equivocating on the central issue of equality before the law of all human beings whether heterosexual or homosexual. Further, many of us who are bishops in this country value and treasure our links with particular dioceses around the Anglican communion. We respect and appreciate the different, and often sharply divided, theological approaches which lead to different stances on the ethical issues. But, as the Lambeth Conference of 1998 made clear, there is not and cannot be any place for homophobia in the church, and all are to be welcomed regardless of sexual orientation.
Few have spoken on this issue as unequivocally as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said in 2010 at the United Nations High-level Panel on Ending Violence and Criminal Sanctions on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity:
“All over the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. They face violence, torture and criminal sanctions because of how they live and who they love. We make them doubt that they too are children of God-and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy”.
Indeed, in recent years, successive statements from the leaders of major Christian denominations in the West have made similar points, including perhaps most consistently, those from the Society of Friends, which has stated:
“We affirm the love of God for all people, whatever their sexual orientation, and our conviction that sexuality is an important part of human beings as created by God, so that to reject people on the grounds of their sexual behaviour is a denial of God’s creation”.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has issued a direct challenge in his opening speech. He said that many people the world over are now asking the churches to put their position beyond all doubt, by saying simply and clearly that criminalisation is wrong. I will put my position beyond all doubt-and I know I speak for other Members of this Bench-by stating it in as clear terms as I can. If criminalisation leads, as it evidently does, to gay people concealing their own identity, that must be wrong; if criminalisation leads to many living in fear, that must be wrong; if criminalisation leads to the prospect of persecution, arrest, detention and death, that must be wrong; and if criminalisation means that LGBT people dare not turn to the state when facing hate crimes and violence, that must be wrong too.
It is within the adult lifetime of most of us in this House that the law was changed in this country to decriminalise homosexual acts. However, for our children’s generation, such a state of affairs must feel like ancient history-as appropriate to the moral climate of today’s society in this country as the burning of witches. We must all urgently pursue this journey to a completely new climate in those many countries of the world where same-sex relations are criminal offences. I very much hope that this debate will serve that cause.
Lord Fowler followed the Bishop of Leicester and began by saying:
My Lords, I strongly agree with everything that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester has said and applaud the lead that he has just given. It was an exceptionally strong speech and one that deserves to be well heard around the country.