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Are Britain's Pro-Gay Foreign Policies Actually Helping the Global LGBT Community?

I talked to human rights campaigners to discuss the UK's attempts to tackle homophobia around the world.
December 9, 2014, 7:45pm

Photo via  ​Wikicommons

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Until recently the UK's record on LGBT rights was hardly something to gloat about. ​Alan Turing's situation was once the norm, not the exception, with thousands imprisoned for "gross indecency" during the 1950s. Even with the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, it wasn't until 30 years later that any meaningful social change took place. Now, though, the UK has transformed into one of the few safe (or at least safer) havens for LGBT people. It's far from perfect, but at least in terms of legislation it is undoubtedly a global pack leader.

Cameron's government has advocated the need to tackle the persecution of the LGBT community around the world, where homosexuality is still criminalized in 79 countries and an estimated 175 million people face jail sentences, eviction, sacking, violence, and  death—often state sanctioned. In many of these countries however, this situation is a direct fallout from the UK's colonial past.

As well as slavery, torture, and the meticulous plundering of natural resources, British colonialists  ​brou​ght anti-homosexuality laws to Africa—laws that still prop up the systemic persecution of the continent's LGBT community. There's more truth in the notion that homophobia is a Western-imposed value than homosexuality itself, despite the rhetoric of Uganda's President Museveni.

His country's Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHO), the infamous "Kill the Gays" bill, took the colonial legacy and ran with it. Pressure from Ugandan campaigners, domestic uproar, and a bout of post-colonial guilt no doubt meant Cameron's government took an unusually high level of interest in Uganda's situation, actively encouraging the former British colony to reform. Or so it seemed.

"They raised it with Museveni. They're very good at raising the issue and they have a very good policy of constructive engagement, but is that enough?" says Jonathan Cooper, chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust. His organization works with local lawyers and activists seeking to bring legal challenges against the criminalization of homosexuality. For him, while Cameron's policy of active engagement is commendable, more could and should have been done.

"It didn't seem to make any difference, Uganda just seemed to carry on," he says. "The main LGBTI organization there, SMUG, called for a number of measures to be taken against the Ugandan government, but the British didn't really do any of them. One of the things they asked for was targeted travel bans on the half a dozen [government] individuals who were viciously fomenting hatred against the LGBTI community. SMUG basically said, 'Why would you want them in your country?' The British wouldn't go near it, nor the EU."

Wholesale sanctions against Uganda would likely just inflame LGBT persecution. Knowing this, SMUG instead asked for international measures to be aimed at those responsible for inciting discrimination and actively pushing the bill through. While the British government made a lot of general noise about Uganda's situation, the American government took an approach closer to the one SMUG recommended, warning officials of potential travel bans, funding withdrawal and the relocation of military exercises. Though not exclusively responsible for the bill's temporary demise, their pragmatic measures certainly contributed to it.

Uganda's  ​recently leaked new anti-homosexuality bill is really as draconian as the first, but the Ugandan government has learnt from their Nigerian counterparts, who watered down the language of their own to make it harder for international opposition to grow. The new bill moves away from punishing "aggravated homosexuality" and instead focuses on banning the promotion of "unnatural sexual practices." This sounds almost non-terrible—or at least not unlike, say, Margaret Thatcher's ​Section​ 28 law—but really it's just a very thinly veiled attack on same-sex couples, one which carries a seven year prison sentence for even "promoting" anything LGBT.

"A few weeks ago I would have said the American approach had worked, because the [AHO] act disappeared," says Cooper. "I'm sure the courts would have dis-applied it anyway, but is it a coincidence this happened two days before Museveni heads off to an African summit in the US?

"If it had still been in force, inevitably he'd be the naughty boy in the room and would have had to sit at the lower table, whereas he could go as one of the great leaders of Africa with the AHO dis-applied. So I would've said the Americans know how to do this, but the new [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition] bill that's emerged is as bad as the old. Let's see what they do now."

For many leaders it's a case of "sticks and stones" and strong words will do little to stop the inevitable passing of Uganda's latest bill. Cameron's much publicized opposition to Nigeria's " ​Jail All The Gays" act was seen as irrelevant by President Jonathan Goodluck, who implemented it anyway. Many called for foreign aid restrictions as a result. Instead the British government increased aid from £200 million ($313 million) to almost £270 million ($423 million); with much of this already channeled through NGOs like UNICEF, any withdrawal would likely impact the most vulnerable.

On its own, the ability of economic sanctions to deter politicians from populist, poll boosting policies is questionable—just ask Putin. Really, Western governments need to think outside of punitive measures and look at more creative and proactive actions, such as increasing investment levels in grass roots movements, promoting pro-LGBT events and backing the kinds of legal challenges that the Human Dignity Trust engages in.

"Economic sanctions should usually only be applied when activists inside the country request them,"  says human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. "The strategy must be to help people in severely homophobic and transphobic countries to liberate themselves."

He continues, "I would like to see David Cameron work with African NGOs to promote events featuring pro-gay speakers such as Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu; when he speaks out for LGBTI rights as an African Christian it has a much greater impact than if that support is expressed by a UK government minister."

If the UK is serious about tackling human rights abuses abroad then it should use all channels and mechanisms at its disposal. Though it's probably now more famous for staging second-rate athletics tournaments, the Commonwealth has sought to address human rights violations perpetrated by its affiliates. But despite its  2013 Charter denouncing all forms of discrimination, there's been little appetite for specifically tackling the criminalization of homosexuality in 42 member states.

"So far the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has never discussed LGBTI rights at any point in its entire history," says Tatchell. "For the last thirty years that I've been involved any such discussion has been vetoed. Successive British governments just haven't lobbied hard enough to get LGBTI rights on the Commonwealth agenda."

With the Commonwealth turning a blind eye, the UK's work within the UN becomes even more critical. As well as monitoring compliance with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its Human Rights Council conducts periodic reviews on its members, where records are scrutinized and reputations tarnished (or restored). Even China takes it seriously. But as well as naming and shaming guilty parties it also provides considered, targeted recommendations for improving their situations.

Dr. Ro​sa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, whose research has focussed on the UN and human rights. Her most recent b​ook looks at how the UN has failed to protect people from grave human rights abuses. Despite this, she believes the UK government's role inside the Human Rights Council is commendable.

"The UN is a fundamental tool for the UK to export rights, and they have a large delegation there which consists of a very specialist human rights team," says Freedman. "They are massively involved behind the scenes with work that is done by the [Human Rights] Council. They're at every session and involved in all the informal negotiations which is where all the real work gets done anyway."

The promotion of LGBT rights is undermined though by political blocs like the  ​Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). When a South African–led LGBT panel took place in the Human Rights Council all but two OIC member states walked out the room. And despite spearheading the movement, regional allies pressured South Africa into stepping back from it. It hasn't been involved in any further attempts to advance LGBT rights since.

LGBT discrimination is a particularly contentious issue within the UN, but unfortunately even the most universally accepted rights cannot be taken for granted. "There are certain absolute rights, like the right to not be tortured, and you might think that it doesn't require resources to not torture someone, but it does," says Freedman. "It requires resources to train police officers, publicity, education, and awareness among the populations about what the rights are. It requires judiciary and justice systems that will deal with situations where torture occurs. Protecting all rights requires resources. No country from Sweden to Somalia has a perfect record, but it's going to take time for rights that we recognize in the UK to be realized in other states."

The hypocrisies surrounding the UK's human rights crusade, both perceived and real, present a formidable barrier to its work. Its political capital has been severely reduced abroad by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and at home by its involvement with human-rights abusing corporations like G4S and Atos.

Promoting the most universally accepted rights is admirable, but it can be a bitter pill for the scolded nations to swallow, especially when rights they hold in high esteem are often disregarded by the UK. The right to solidarity is a hugely respected in Latin American countries; looking at the way trade unions are ostracized and restricted suggests the UK feels otherwise. And should Cameron win a second term he's vowed to scrap Europe's Human Rights Act (HRA) and bring in his own British version. It doesn't make the UK Uganda on gay rights, but it's a move that will only incite international leaders who bemoan UK hypocrisy.

Each day thousands of LGBT people are persecuted globally. Human rights activists want to see more ground-level intervention, more funding for local NGOs, more direct involvement—not to mention the long overdue concerted policy from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to specifically address the issue. Public condemnation, constructive engagement and utilizing the UN are worthwhile exercises, but this alone won't protect the LGBT community or even begin to undo the damage caused by the Empire.

Follow Chris Godfrey on ​Twitter.