Comment: UCL compromises on LGBT rights when the price is right

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Writing for, James Hallwood expresses his anger at the decision of University College London to open a campus in Qatar, a state notorious for its draconian anti-gay laws.

As a former UCL student I was shocked to see UCL proudly announce that it was to be the first UK university to establish a campus in Qatar, an absolute monarchy that bans male homosexuality, a country continually monitored by Amnesty International for human rights abuses. With a proud history of inclusion this is a monumental step backwards for UCL, legitimising Qatar, a state that is actively homophobic.

While anger is rightly vented towards Russia for its repressive new laws banning “gay propaganda”, UCL is doing business with a state that not only bans the “promotion” of homosexuality but goes further by punishing “sodomy” with 1-3 years in jail.

When I was at UCL I was able to be a member of the LGBT Society – something I simply took for granted. I now appreciate that freedom so much more when I consider that gay students at UCL Qatar would not only be unable to openly affirm their sexuality but would face severe legal penalties for doing so. LGBT students from the UK hoping to study in their sister campus would not only have to conceal their sexuality but would potentially face medical tests to detect “homosexuality”. Failure of the proposed tests would result in a ban to enter Gulf Co-operation Countries.

It is little surprise that there are calls to boycott Qatar’s 2022 World Cup; not just for the country’s appalling gay rights record but also in outrage at the projected deaths of 4,000 immigrant labourers working on the tournament. Like the World Cup, UCL’s move is an attempt to legitimise a regime that deserves condemnation not prestige.

In UCL Qatar’s launch video, UCL’s Vice Provost, Michael Worton, says: “UCL is a university for which values are extremely important and our values match very much with Qatar Foundation”

Since 1989, international watchdog, Freedom House has classed Qatar as ‘not free’ – how does UCL reconcile that with its ‘values’? How does it also justify entering this arrangement in a country with such long-standing human rights concerns?

The Arab Spring has left many organisations in the West looking back on their roles in turning a blind-eye to unsavoury governments and universities have previously legitimised regimes only to regret it in the future. UCL would be in an awkward position should a pro-democracy uprising be suppressed in Qatar and what would it do if students who are LGBT are persecuted? Is a cheque from the Qatari Royal Family enough to silence UCL and its founding principles?

When I asked my old university these questions and what they would advise LGBT students at UCL Qatar to do, a spokesman got back to me saying: “UCL respects the law of the countries in which it operates. We acknowledge that there are different legal and societal views regarding LGBT issues in different countries, and that legal practice is changing in different countries at different rates. We advise all our staff and students of the legal situation in Qatar and how these impact on day to day life.”

The sad fact is that UCL is willing to compromise on LGBT rights if the price is right. As the rest of the world wakes up to human rights abuses in Qatar, UCL is tied in to a deal that diminishes its progressive history and only furthers the aims of those who want to legitimise an autocratic and homophobic regime.

With government cuts, it’s understandable that universities are under pressure to secure further funding – but there are some things that should remain priceless. Qatar has got itself a bargain, UCL sold-out its liberal credentials on the cheap.

James Hallwood is a former student of UCL and Secretary of the Young Fabians. He tweets @jhallwood.

As with all comment articles the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of