Shadow Foreign Minister: From Uganda to Brunei, LGBT lives remain under threat

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Minister for Human Rights, Kerry McCarthy, writes for PinkNews how on IDAHOT much of the world continues to be a difficult place for LGBT people.

As we mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia today, it is a day to celebrate gender and sexual diversity, to underline the fundamental principles of equality and to stand united against prejudice and discrimination.

May 17th is significant because it marks the anniversary of the World Health Organisation’s decision in 1990 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. To many of us, it will seem shocking that such a decision was made so recently but in many countries today, while homosexuality may not be classed as a mental disorder, it is very much considered to be a crime.

Same-sex relationships are still illegal in 77 countries. In some of these, homosexuality is punishable by death; in 10 countries, people lose their lives simply for being themselves. Such laws foster a climate where attacks on LGBTI people are commonplace, and tolerated. Even in countries such as the UK, where progress towards equality is being made – less than two months ago we celebrated the first same-sex marriages – there are battles still to be won.

So International Day Against Homophobia must be a day to challenge the homophobia that still exists and to challenge the discriminatory policies championed by some governments – policies that violate international standards on human rights and spread prejudice and fear through their countries.

Much has already been written about President Putin’s crack-down on gay rights and the horrendous violence suffered by LGBTI people in Russia; about Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act; about the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to re-criminalise homosexuality; and about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.

This week, we learnt more about the real impact of such legislation on people’s lives. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on the “surge in human rights violations” suffered by LGBTI Ugandans since the act was passed in December. These include arbitrary arrests, police abuse and extortion, people losing their jobs and/ or homes, and being forced to flee their own country. Tragically, there is at least one report of a transgender person being killed in an apparent hate crime. LGBTI access to healthcare has also been limited, either because services are actively being denied or because patients have been made to fear arrest if they seek medical attention.

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has just published its report, “From Torment to Tyranny”, documenting 162 reported incidents of persecution between 20th December 2013 and 1st May this year. This represents a 750% and 1900% increase on previous years but, as SMUG warns, it is likely to only be the tip of the iceberg.

And now, Brunei – another Commonwealth country – is imposing their interpretation of full Sharia Criminal Law, which, along with a number of other horrific violations of international standards on human rights and cruel and inhuman punishments, would mean homosexuality is punishable by stoning.

As PinkNews has previously reported, the UK Government’s Human Rights Minister, Baroness Warsi, was criticised for not publicly raising concerns about the new penal code when she visited Brunei last month. It could have been an opportunity to make clear to the people of Brunei that the UK condemns such laws that also fuel and incite prejudice in communities.

This, though, is not the first time that this government has been more reticent to challenge human rights abuses in countries where they see commercial opportunities.

By contrast, high-profile people like Stephen Fry have supported a boycott of the hotel chain owned by the Sultan of Brunei. I have raised the Brunei case in Parliament, and will continue to call on the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister to go further in supporting LGBTI rights, in challenging regressive legislation that threaten the lives and liberty of LGBTI people, and in pressing for action amongst the Commonwealth, where nearly 80% of member states criminalise homosexuality.

As Labour leader Ed Miliband wrote for PinkNews today, the fight for equality is far from won. But today is a day to show that we stand united. A day for solidarity with LGBTI activists and human rights defenders who have to fight homophobia every day. They are counting on us for support. We cannot let them down.

Kerry McCarthy is Labour’s Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Minister for Human Rights.

She is also the MP for Bristol East.