Global LGBT Rights

Part of Modern Slavery Act 2015 – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 26th October 2017.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 3:09 pm, 26th October 2017

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that I will not take as long as that.

I pay tribute to Nick Herbert for his very powerful speech. He has been a tour de force in championing this issue. I really do hope that we have genuine cross-party co-operation on this—there is absolutely no reason why we should not.

I pay tribute to the countries that have made progress, and to the very brave activists in those countries who have, in some cases, even lost their lives because of standing up for LGBT rights. I think of David Kato, who set up Sexual Minorities Uganda and who was brutally murdered in 2011. We know the reaction of the Ugandan Government, with newspaper headlines more or less calling for people to hunt down and lynch homosexual men in the streets. There was very much a climate of fear, so it was incredibly brave of him and his successor, Dr Frank Mugisha, who now runs Sexual Minorities Uganda, to speak up. When I met Frank, he said that the handful of openly gay people in Uganda could almost be counted on the fingers of two hands because so few people were willing to come forward. We then had the proposals to introduce the death penalty for such people.

This debate is often couched in terms of saying, “We don’t mind what you do in the privacy of your own homes—the problem is when you promote it and start talking about these issues in front of children.” That is a very pernicious angle to take, because, in effect, it prevents people from leading their lives freely, openly, and without fear of persecution.

Another activist, Eric Lembembe in Cameroon, who was murdered in 2013, spoke of

“a climate of hatred and bigotry” in his country

“which extends to high levels in government” and

“reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

Two weeks later, he was tortured and murdered. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken eloquently about some of the persecution that has been suffered by activists in countries such as Egypt and Uganda, and the suppression of Pride last year.

I want to talk briefly about what leverage we have. Certainly, our membership of the Commonwealth should give us enormous influence. I spoke at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference a few years ago when I was the shadow Foreign Office human rights Minister. I came across the tricky issue where it felt slightly like people from the white countries, to put it very crudely, were preaching to people from the African countries. Somebody said to me, “You came over to our country and told us that homosexuality was wrong. You sent the missionaries over. You preached the Bible to us. You showed us where it said that these customs and practices”—which had actually been tolerated then in Uganda and some other countries—“were wrong, and now you’re coming back and telling us, ‘Hang on, we got it wrong that time—you’ve now got to start accepting our norms.’” There is a real concern about being seen as a colonial force in doing that.

There is also the issue of how this fits into the debate about freedom of religion and belief. We have heard about that in this House before. Yes, people should be free to express their religious views and beliefs, but they should not be able, through expressing those views, to promote persecution of homosexuality or bigotry towards people from the LGBT community. Too often it is used as an excuse.

The leverage we have other than through the Commonwealth is through our trading relations with other countries. In autumn 2013, the coalition Government launched, with a great fanfare, their business and human rights action plan. The then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague, spoke of how he wanted to mesh the two and said that business and human rights should not be separate but integral. He was almost talking about an ethical foreign policy. Since then, it has been really disappointing that that action plan appears to have been shelved and is not spoken about. Two years ago, the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and he admitted that human rights were no longer a priority for his Department, saying that far more resources were going into pursuing trade deals. I think that the Foreign Office dropped the specific branches of its human rights activity in favour of some very vague priorities. At the time, human rights groups described his comments as being as

“astonishing as they were alarming”.

That was obviously before Brexit. Now that we are entering a world in which we will be pursuing ever more vigorously trade deals and new business relationships with overseas countries, human rights absolutely need to be back at the heart of our conversations. I have asked so many questions of Ministers about what they say about human rights when they go to countries like Saudi Arabia, and I get back very vague answers saying, “Nothing was off the table”, or, “A range of issues were discussed”. Clearly, if they were discussed at all, it was left to some minor official from the Foreign Office to mention them in passing at a meeting, just so that box could be ticked.

It is really disappointing that the business and human rights action plan seems to have been sidelined and is not on the International Trade Secretary’s radar at all. When we go to countries that have a dreadful record on human rights and on LGBT issues in particular, we need to be having that conversation. We have to put that on the table and say it is unacceptable. Even LGBT employees of British companies going to work in countries with such dreadful records are not safe. I hope that we will take up that agenda as a group.