The UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is facing calls to apologise, after he gave the green light to ban equal marriage in Bermuda.
The unelected Governor of Bermuda, who is appointed by the UK government, this week gave assent to a law that will abolish same-sex marriage in the territory, less than a year after weddings began.
Although the UK technically has a veto over legislation that it deems to contradict human rights, the Foreign Secretary gave Bermuda the green light to sign the law, which abolishes same-sex marriages and replaces them with a segregated form of partnerships for gay couples.
The decision has ignited fury aimed at Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has previously claimed to champion global LGBT rights.
Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told PinkNews: “This is an utterly disgraceful piece of legislation, which turns same-sex couples into second-class citizens, just a year after they won their equality through the courts. Following a year when Australia, Taiwan and Chile have joined the march towards marriage equality, this legislation is a giant step backwards.
“For that to happen anywhere in the world would be shameful, but for it to happen in a British Territory, with the legislation signed by a British Governor, and permitted by a British Foreign Secretary, is nothing short of a scandal. Boris Johnson must explain why he has let this happen, and at the very least, should apologise for doing so.”
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable told PinkNews: “Intervening in the laws of a British Overseas Territory is an exceptional step but, in this case, one the FCO must take given an unelected governor wants to send Bermuda back to the dark ages on LGBT rights.”
Lib Dem peer Baroness Barker told PinkNews: “Boris Johnson has let down LGBT citizens not just in Bermuda but across the whole Commonwealth. The U.K. should be helping the Commonwealth to achieve peace and prosperity, not recreating the worst of colonialism.”
Amid the fury, Mr Johnson failed to turn up to answer an urgent question about his decision on the issue on the floor of the Commons.
Junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Harriett Baldwin answered questions, but confirmed the decision had been taken by Mr Johnson.
She said: “The Secretary of State did consider the implications extremely carefully… it was carefully discussed by those at our end, and in terms of balancing the issues concerned, the Secretary of State did decide not to intervene on the matter.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who had pursued the issue, said: “How can it possibly be right that lesbian and gay British citizens in Bermuda and Northern Ireland are told they are worth less than British citizens in this country?”
He added: “However the government tries to dress this up, it is a backwards step for human rights in Bermuda and in the Overseas Territories. Same-sex Bermudian couples who have been married under the ruling of the Bermudian Supreme Court have now been rendered an anomaly.
“Gay and lesbian Bermudians have been told they aren’t quite equal to everyone else, and don’t deserve the full marriage rights that others enjoy. Cunard and P&O’s Bermuda-registered ships will be banned from holding same-sex marriages at sea.
“Does the Minister not really worry that when [we] tell the Russians to respect LGBT rights in Chechnya, or tries to convince India, Pakistan or Indonesia to change the law to benefit LGBT people, those countries will just laugh – and say ‘the first territory in the world to repeal same-sex marriage is British Bermuda, and they did it with your expressed permission!’?”
The junior minister went on to claim that the Act was actually a positive step because it provides gay couples some limited rights by a form of partnerships segregated from marriage.
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She said: “We are obviously disappointed about the removal of same-sex marriage in Bermuda. The Domestic Partnerships Act to which the Governor assented does ensure that Bermudians that have been legally married will retain their married status and enjoy the same legal rights as others in domestic partnerships.
“Less than a year ago, same-sex couples had no legal recognition at all under Bermudian law. While the act withdraws the entitlement for same-sex couples to marry, it replaces it with a provision for domestic partnerships.
“The intent of the act is to provide domestic partners with the same benefits as married couples, including provisions for pensions, healthcare, inheritance, tax and immigration.
“After full and careful consideration in regard to Bermuda’s constitutional and international obligations, the Secretary of State decided that in these circumstances it would not be appropriate to use this power to block legislation, which can only be used where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so, and even then only in exceptional circumstances.”
Despite the Bermudian Supreme Court previously ruling that gay couples have a right to marriage, Ms Baldwin said: “It is important to recognise that a regime for domestic partnerships can also meet the European Court of Human Rights requirements for legal recognition of same-sex relationships.”
She added: “This government is committed to promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality globally through projects, partnerships and persuasion. In engaging with the British Territories we have to respect that they are separate self-governing jurisdictions with their own democratically-elected representatives and a right to self- government.”
An FCO spoeksperson said: “The introduction of same–sex marriage last year put Bermuda among the most progressive countries in the region in terms of LGBT equality. It is therefore disappointing to see them taking a step backwards and removing the right for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda.
“The Governor of Bermuda took extensive advice before making a decision on whether to grant assent to the Domestic Partnership Bill which was democratically passed by the Parliament of Bermuda.
“The UK regrets that Bermuda has chosen this course, but we also respect and believe in their right to self-government.”