I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is important not least because of the health and equality issues that are raised, which he will know in his capacity as chair of the all-party group on HIV/AIDS. I will come on to CHOGM shortly.
There is another world, too. I am talking about a world in which 75 countries criminalise same-sex activity between consenting adults. That covers 2.9 billion people. Some 40% of the world’s population live in these jurisdictions, which means that more than 400 million people live under laws that punish same-sex activity, and punish it with the death penalty. Our all-party group was keen to secure this debate now because of the events in a number of countries last month, during the conference recess. What happened was a matter of grave concern.
In Azerbaijan, during the last two weeks of September, organised police raids led to mass arrests of perceived gay and bi men as well as trans women in the capital, Baku. The authorities claim that the arrests were made as part of a crackdown on prostitution, but activists and the victims’ lawyers claim that LGBT people were specifically targeted. While in detention, victims report being subjected to beatings, electric shock torture, forced medical examinations and other degrading treatment and ill-treatment. The majority of the detainees were charged with disobeying police orders, which is an administrative offence, and sentenced to between five and 20 days in custody. The country’s own Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that 83 people were detained in total.
The ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan noted that we were calling this debate and wrote to me this week. Let me quote what he says:
“I can reassure you that this was not a concerted effort to crack down on the LGBT community, but rather a police action to stop solicitation of sexual services in downtown Baku following complaints from local residents. It may be that some within the local police force acted over-zealously and exceeded their mandate. As soon as the appropriate authorities were made aware of this the police operation was stopped and all those detained were released.
I would like to reiterate that the Azerbaijani constitution guarantees all forms of freedom of expression. Same-sex sexual activity for both men and women has been decriminalised in Azerbaijan since September 1st 2000.”
That does not deal properly with the situation. Local groups have reported that, since the initial raids, the authorities continue to intimidate and harass people whom they perceive to be LGBT. It is very important that this House, and I hope the Government, send a very clear message to the Azerbaijani Government that that kind of oppression is unacceptable in the eyes of the global community.
This House heard an urgent question earlier this year about the terrible situation in Chechnya, with arbitrary arrests and the illegal detention and torture of LGBT people. That continues to take place as part of a wider crackdown on human rights, despite the protests that have been made to the Russian authorities.
In Egypt, more than 50 people have been arrested in response to the flying of rainbow flags at a pop concert in Cairo on
Although same-sex conduct is not explicitly prohibited in Egypt, the Egyptian Parliament is now debating criminalising homosexuality with a proposed punishment of up to 15 years in prison. What are Her Majesty’s Government saying to the Egyptian authorities and Government about this terrible abuse of gay people for committing what we in this country would regard as no crime at all, but simply the freedom of expression of flying a flag? I was struck by a message sent to me by a young gay man living in Egypt who attended that concert. He said:
“I can hear those consistent steps. Coming closer. Fear. Is it happening? Fear. Are they coming for me?...This has been the most common stream of thoughts during the past weeks in Cairo. The thought of being arrested would not leave my mind ever since the recent escalation of the state in its crackdown on the LGBTQs in Egypt. Fear that has, more or less, accompanied me for a life time as a gay man in Egypt. It is heartbreaking to wake up everyday to a new chapter of fighting for your right to exist, just to be.”
These are not isolated cases. Attacks on freedom of expression and association of LGBT people are wide- spread in other countries. State action, in turn, licenses discrimination at best, violence at worse and a climate of fear under which LGBT people have to live.
In June 2013, the Russia Duma unanimously adopted, and President Putin signed, a nationwide law banning the distribution of propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations—often the excuse for measures that discriminate against LGBT people. Since the introduction of that Russian law, 14 countries have considered similar legislation in eastern Europe, central Asia and Africa.
Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 criminalises the formation, operation and support of gay clubs, societies and organisations, with sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Uganda’s Parliament passed a similar act—the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 —which would have prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by individuals and organisations, incurring penalties of up to seven years’ imprisonment. That has now been revoked, but Uganda’s Pride had to be cancelled this year as a consequence of the actions of the state and the police, who were absolutely determined that that expression should not take place.
It is sometimes suggested that the UK may be guilty of some kind of neo-colonialism by seeking to impose our views on countries in the same way as we did in the past. It is true that 40 of the 53 member states of the Commonwealth criminalised same-sex activity using legislation inherited from the British empire. I would argue that our history gives us a special responsibility to atone for the measures that we introduced, and to act. That view is shared by the Prime Minister, who—I am delighted to say—said last week at the PinkNews awards that, on the world stage, the Government are
“standing up for LGBT rights, and challenging at the highest level those governments which allow or inflict discrimination or abuse. The anti-LGBT laws which remain in some Commonwealth countries are a legacy of Britain’s Colonial past, so the UK government has a special responsibility to help change hearts and minds. We will ensure these important issues are discussed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which we are hosting in London next April.”
That is immensely welcome.
Only this week, the Commonwealth Equality Network of activists and non-governmental organisations is meeting in Malta to discuss how to reverse the oppression of gay people in too many Commonwealth countries. The stand that the Prime Minister has taken and the Government will take at CHOGM next year is very important. After all, what many of these countries are doing is in breach of the Commonwealth charter itself. Indeed, outside the Commonwealth, every country has signed up to the United Nations declaration of human rights—rights that guarantee liberty, freedom of expression and freedom from torture and oppression. That is why it is so important that we continue to support campaigns run by United Nations institutions, such as the Free & Equal campaign, as well as other multinational initiatives, such as the Equal Rights Coalition, which was launched last year with UK Government support. It now incorporates 29 Governments, who co-operate and share information, but it needs the continuing and active support of the UK Government.
I would argue that the UK Government, who have done a great deal in this area, can do much more, and I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to a high-level challenge. The all-party parliamentary group produced a report last year and made a number of specific recommendations on what the Government could do. First, they could adopt a cross-departmental strategy to ensure that all parts of the Government are co-ordinated and take the necessary steps, so that they can take a stance and promote the values that we in this country think are important. There are multiple actors—the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office, the Department of Health and the Home Office—and it is important that they are co-ordinated. I welcome the presence here of the Minister for Equalities, my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb; he is a Minister in a domestic UK Department, but I nevertheless recognise his cross-cutting responsibility for these issues, and that co-ordination is important.
Secondly—this is perhaps one of the most important things of all—there is the funding that can be provided for LGBT activist groups on the ground. These are vulnerable, fragile groups, which are run by very brave activists in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, in Russia and in other countries that we have discussed and will discuss. They need support, and the support they can be given—yes, by private individuals and foundations, but also by the British Government—is immensely important. It is important that those funding streams that can be directed through British high commissions and embassies are maintained.
Thirdly, we should ensure that safe routes are given to people who flee persecution—particularly when they are applying for asylum—in the way that was done in countries such as Canada and other European countries in relation to the LGBT people who were so egregiously persecuted in Chechnya.