Human Rights Minister: ‘Staying in the EU magnifies our voice on LGBT rights’
On the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay, has spoken to PinkNews about how remaining in Europe helps to magnify the UK’s voice on LGBT rights.
The minister also spoke of how a bill of rights along with the European Convention on Human Rights would make the UK’s record stronger and how the United States can learn from Britain on how to deal with promoting trans rights.
Is there an LGBT argument to staying in the EU?
I think that LGBT people, like everybody else, have an interest in the UK remaining in the European Union because the EU’s voice magnifies our strength internationally and if we want to press for a proper extension of the equality of law for LGBTI people and by proper I mean it should happen, then we need to be in the EU where the UK’s voice is magnified.
I want to bring reforms whether that’s in Uganda or anywhere around the world, I want to change laws so that same-sex relations are decriminalised everywhere. As I’ve said in the House of Lords, it’s wrong to criminalise consensual same-sex relationships. If we want to do that we need to be somewhere where our voice works and we can magnify that with the EU.
When it comes to some of the newer members of the EU, they had to change their laws in order to comply with the European Convention. How important was that in changing attitudes?
That was very important because it changed attitudes gradually. It changed the law and it doesn’t mean to say that because you change the law it changes people views, but when we are changing the law it makes people think and think about equality.
When I think, for example, in Italy they now recognise that there should be same-sex civil unions, which is great because it the first step to having wider reform. I hope in the future, not to far in the future, there will be an ability for people to get married as well.
When we last met, you said that gay cure therapies amount to torture. What can be done by the UK Government to stamp out these practices?
There are two areas that worry me and I’ve thought about this a lot since we last spoke. There is the matter of how does one ensure that people in the medical profession don’t carry out this particular aversion therapy. It means that they are treating people as if they have an illness when they don’t. I just find the whole thing almost unbelievable it’s just awful.
There is an education element, but we also have to protect medical staff with a change in law, so that they can’t be asked to carry out these procedures. That then means there is the whole issue of society’s attitudes and that is a long term job that we’ve got to do. If families are saying to people, ‘you need to change’ or if churches are saying, ‘you need to change, this is not right’, we need to persuade people that’s wrong.
The most important thing in this world is to be able to live as who you are and if you’re not doing any harm to anybody then you should not be punished for that.
Do you think the law should change here or in other countries?
I think there are still some attitudes that need to change here about people who try and persuade others to have aversion therapy. We don’t necessarily have to change the law, the law is there to protect the medical staff as well.
I think for families to try and persuade people to have aversion therapy, I think they have misunderstood what it is to be LGBTI.
The Seychelles Government specifically mentioned the pressure and the support from the UK Government when it announced plans to decriminalise male same-sex activity. What pressure exactly did the UK Government place on the country and what are you doing with other Commonwealth Countries?
I can explain what happens in every instance because what we do is keep up gentle but firm pressure. We don’t just suddenly start trying to get people to change the law because that doesn’t work.
You have to be patient and utterly determined.
We will work through post, the Ambassadors and High Commissioners, and a series of projects they will do. They can provide bi-lateral funding in post to look at ways of changing things.
Also, they can put forward proposals from local NGO [sic: non-governmental organisations] which can then apply to the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. Now, I know the Daily Mail attacks us for some of the funding that we provide, but I would protect it to the nth degree because what we are doing is funding to change attitudes for the better.
And the other thing that we do is to work with organisations, like the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and there you can find like minded people who can also put pressure, say for example the Seychelles, to change their views.
Do you think those who criticise the Government over the funding just don’t understand the problem?
I don’t think they look at the detail of what we are trying to do. That’s why the Human Rights Report that we published recently makes it clear what we are about. That is making sure there is good governance and equality for all. If you look at the detail of it that’s what we’re trying to do.
Over the past year, there has been a lot of change when it comes to LGBT issues. One of the big ones is that same-sex marriage has been introduced across the United States. However, there has also been increasingly draconian legislation against the LGBT community, such as in North Carolina. What message does the UK Government send to these states?
Let’s go back to something you said a moment ago – people not understanding. What worries me is that individual states have misunderstood the whole issue of what transgender means.
They have started with an attitude of not understanding, fearing and that they are some how going to be subverting the ordinary way of life. They haven’t actually had it explained to them that there is nothing to be worried about.
I think it’s really helpful if countries, like the UK, can explain what out experience is and for example, I really encouraged by the way schools in this country are handling this in a very pragmatic, practical way. No fuss. They are saying what works for the school and the individual is all that matters.
In the states, some of the states, not all, have got the wrong end of the stick. When they say ‘you shall not use this particular convenance because we say this’, is the kind of thing I find very worrying. But that’s why we will explain and explain and explain.
Some of the consulates in some of the states have been voicing their concerns. In diplomatic terms what message can be given to the local Governors?
I think that we can show examples of good practice, good practice in the UK and that they don’t have to be worried because this is what we do and show them what works.
Do you think it harms our ability to talk about that when we still have Northern Ireland without same sex marraige?
I’m on record as saying I’m very saddened by the fact that Northern Ireland has decided to hold out against same-sex marraige. I do hope that they change their minds. Let them look across the border to Ireland itself and let them feel that surely they’re out on a limb and do hope.
It may not undermine our voice in the European Union, but I do always have to answer the question ‘what about Northern Ireland?’
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You’d prefer not to have to answer that?
In the UK and across Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has helped changed many of our laws in order to advance equality Should the UK remain a signatory, like Ruth Davidson the leader of the Conservatives in Scotland does, or do you believe we should leave?
What we’ve said about the ECHR is that we will remain a signatory but that’s not going to be at any cost and that’s where Ruth Davidson is as well. So what we are doing, is when we consult on a Bill of Rights it will be just that. The bill won’t be published for a little while yet, we haven’t had the Queen’s Speech.
But when we consult, people can give their views at that stage and when legislation is brought forward it will reflect those views. Who knows what those views are.
A Bill of Rights isn’t going to undermine our commitment to the ECHR. What we are going to do is make sure that our human rights are stronger, not weaker. That’s the purpose.