By Robert W Gibson
20 May, 2014
Saturday, May 17, was the international day against homophobia, which British missions around the world have been supporting.
The UK’s global policy is that human rights are universal and should apply equally to all people, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Few in the world would argue with that principle.
When we accept that, we must also accept what it means in practice. This is not something where it is possible to pick and choose.
Great steps have been taken worldwide towards empowering women, promoting freedom of religion, and banning discrimination based on the colour of skin. The economic and social benefits have been huge. Yet some people are uncomfortable applying this to same-sex relations, and treat this issue as an irrelevant diversion.
To do so undermines the principle of the universality of human rights, including equality for all. This is not just of concern to people in the LGBT community. It is a fundamental issue affecting us all.
How can we accept that any person should have lesser freedom than another? Universality means just that – for everyone, whether man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual, European or Asian.
Many in Bangladesh have spoken out about the importance of empowering women and girls. It is widely accepted that this is something to be encouraged, that equal rights and employment for women is not just good for them but good for Bangladesh, though there is much work to be done before this can be taken for granted. To then draw a line and say that some Bangladeshi men and women do not deserve equal rights makes no sense.
To render consenting same-sex relations illegal is incompatible with international human rights obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
168 countries are party to the ICCPR, including 41 of the 53 Commonwealth members. As such they are obliged under Article 17 to ensure their laws do not render same-sex relations illegal just as they are obliged under the treaty to uphold other fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of movement, religion, expression and assembly, and freedom from torture, slavery, arbitrary arrest, and forced marriage.
The UK has long since abolished laws against same-sex relations and other discriminatory legislation, and society as a whole has benefited, realising the skills and talents of all its citizens. This has helped its economy and culture to flourish, as many people from Bangladesh see and appreciate when they visit.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 76 countries still retain laws that discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In at least five countries, the death penalty may be applied to those found guilty of offences relating to consensual same-sex relations. In many countries, the LGBT community continues to experience violence, hate crimes, intolerance, violation, and abuse of their human rights including torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, restrictions on their freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, discrimination in employment, and restricted access to health services and education.
The UK government will continue to make the case for both acceptance and integration of the LGBT community, and press all Commonwealth states, including Bangladesh, to recognise that the LGBT community deserves the same protection as all others and to ensure all its citizens can stand together as equals, protected by the law, not criminalised by it.