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UN Vote on the Independent Expert for the LGBT Community

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the planned United Nations vote on the validity of a UN independent expert for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her question, and warmly welcome her reappointment to the Front Bench.

As the House may know, the issue before us concerns the United Nations Human Rights Council and its recent very welcome decision to create the post of independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, or, in House parlance, what we could call LGBT. The person chosen for that role was Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, from Thailand. The United Kingdom was successfully re-elected to the Human Rights Council only last month, but we are now having to campaign in New York, where a group of African delegations have challenged the mandate of the independent expert and are trying to reverse the decision and the appointment. I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to explain the steps we are taking, which I am certain will enjoy the support of the whole House. We are obviously strongly opposed to this attempt to reverse the mandate and to block the final approval of the process—something that should be seen as straightforward and procedural.

Opponents of this important mandate misunderstand its nature, which is proportionate and was properly established by the Human Rights Council. Since Friday night, when we discovered that this was happening, the UK’s entire diplomatic network has been making that point in every capital across the globe. Only this morning, for instance, my noble Friend Baroness Anelay, who is visiting Sri Lanka, secured the agreement of her hosts in Colombo to join us by supporting an amendment tabled by a group of Latin American countries, which were the main proponents of the appointment in the first place.

The Government, and all in the House, believe that the chance to live with dignity, free from violence or discrimination, should never be undermined by a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. All people are born with equal rights, and should enjoy the protection of the United Nations. Acts of violence against LGBT people take place in all regions of the world, including our own. We condemn such violence and discrimination, and we strongly support the new independent expert in his work. We will resist any and all attempts to block his appointment and his mandate.

I thank the Minister for his upfront declaration of the Government’s intent on this matter. It is however frustrating that it took an urgent question to find out the Government’s position.

As the Minister said, in June of this year the UN Human Rights Council adopted an historic resolution mandating the appointment of an independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It effectively created the first ever UN LGBT human rights watchdog. The motion put before the UN General Assembly by the African nations today could reverse that decision, aiming to defer consideration of, and action on, this Human Rights Council resolution. The motion seeks to suspend, and potentially get rid of, the UN independent expert on LGBT violence and discrimination.

This motion has a realistic chance of passing, securing votes from the African Group and many of the nations within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It is crucial that this matter should be raised in the Chamber because it is concrete evidence of the systematic attempt to frustrate the protection and advancement of LGBT human rights internationally.

In many countries persecution based on who people love or are sexually attracted to, or on their gender identity, is extreme. Often, this discrimination and violence is state-sanctioned. According to a UN human rights report last year, at least 76 countries retain laws that criminalise and harass people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes fines, torture, hard labour, forced “conversion” therapy, lifelong prison sentences, and the death penalty.

The UK is a tolerant country, yet according to Galop, a UK-based anti-violence LGBT charity, we have seen a 147% increase in hate crimes against LGBT people in July, August and September of this year, with one in four gay young people having experienced homophobic bullying. I know the Minister is as appalled as I am at these statistics and agrees with me that it is crucial symbolically, politically and practically that the actions of the UK put a stop to this persecution once and for all and that we are strong in our condemnation of this motion. So I ask the Government to take this opportunity to show zero tolerance to violence and discrimination against LGBT people in all its forms and offer a firm commitment to working with our international allies to eradicate violence, hatred and intolerance towards people based on their gender or sexuality.

I specifically ask the Secretary of State to clarify a couple of points. Has the UK’s position been made clear to other member states ahead of the potential vote, specifically the African nations? What work are the Government undertaking to promote LGBT rights abroad both through the UN and in regular interactions with individual nation states? Finally, does the Minister intend to make his view on the Africa Group motion public and will he make a statement following the General Assembly meeting today, to update the House on this matter?

Order. I would like to think that the House of Commons is public. I think I understand that the hon. Lady would like further elaboration, but I hope we are public here, and I must say that the Minister has not knowingly been understated over the years or inclined to express himself quietly in the background—unlike me.

I do not think I dissent from a word the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has said; we are as one, and obviously I have a deep personal interest in this issue. I commend her on raising this matter for the very point Mr Speaker has just made: we are making this public through the House and this is a very useful opportunity for the House to do so. May I also say that the hon. Lady is well-named for the purpose she has adopted today?

This issue has not been publicly aired in great detail already because it has sprung up rather suddenly; it is an emerging issue that requires fast-moving diplomatic effort. It is unusual for something to be decided in the Human Rights Council and then go to the General Assembly with that assembly used as a forum to try to block something. This does not normally happen, and indeed it should not happen in this way.

The hon. Lady asked whether the UK’s view is clear. I think it now is, and the view of a united House of Commons will redouble the view of the Government. We make our view on LGBT issues very clear in all our diplomatic representations overseas. For example, advancing the interests and rights of LGBT people is very much a part of many of our Department for International Development programmes. She asked whether we will make public what happens. I think that this will be followed, although whether it justifies a statement will depend on Mr Speaker. Our views will be very clear, however, and I can assure the House that we will be fighting in every capital in the world to ensure that this decision goes the right way.

A depressing number of the countries that are likely to vote for this resolution are members of the Commonwealth. Can my right hon. Friend update the house on the work that is going on to persuade countries other than Sri Lanka not to vote for the resolution? What further work is the Foreign Office doing to take the Commonwealth countries on the same journey that the rest of the world is on in relation to rights for LGBT people?

This is a long and continuing journey of persuasion for many Commonwealth countries, and it is always very disappointing that some of them do rather lag behind on this issue. I can assure my hon. Friend that every single post in our diplomatic network has been issued with clear instructions to make representations to get their country to vote in the right way in the General Assembly, where we expect the decision to take place either today or on Thursday.

First, may I commend the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this urgent question? I should also like to commend the Minister for his response. It appears that we have finally found some common ground. The Scottish National party was delighted when the United Nations Human Rights Council delivered its historic vote in June mandating the appointment of an independent expert for the LGBT community. This reaffirmed one of the UN’s key principles that everyone is equal in dignity and in rights. Anyone who truly believes in equality knows that no single equality is more virtuous or more worthy than any other, and I am sure everyone across the Chamber will agree that we must stand up for them all.

We are deeply concerned that this progress has suffered a major setback with the group of African states planning to force a vote today in the General Assembly to revoke the appointment of the independent expert for the LGBT community. Distressingly, the vote might pass, so the UK Government and the Foreign Secretary must do everything possible and use every possible channel to prevent this loathsome resolution from being approved. The Foreign Secretary’s diplomacy skills are needed now more than ever. The Minister has mentioned Sri Lanka, and perhaps the Prime Minister has secured India’s support during her trip to India. What other international counterparts have the UK Government spoken to ahead of the vote today? What efforts are they making to ensure support for a vote against the resolution? It is clear that the Minister understands that the UK’s action on this matter is critical. Will he assure us that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will leave absolutely no stone unturned in ensuring equality for all?

I am pleased and delighted to agree wholly with the hon. Lady. I can assure her that no stone will remain unturned. We are looking at a complete starburst of diplomatic effort to try to corral votes for this purpose in the General Assembly. Indeed, we are starting from an alliance of considerable diplomatic effort. We are proud to be a member of the new equal rights coalition, which is made up of more than 30 states, and we also contribute funds to support LGBT rights projects globally.

I was honoured to be present on behalf of the all-party group on global LGBT rights, which I chair, at September’s high-level United Nations meeting. At that meeting, the Secretary-General applauded the appointment of the independent expert, saying that it was an “historic step”. Is it not the case that so many of the groups that face discrimination across the world regard the stance of the United Nations on this matter as an immense encouragement in the promotion and valuing of human rights, and that the continuing appointment of the independent expert to translate international principles of humanitarian law into practical action and ensure that they are enforced will be immensely important?

I wholly agree with my right hon. Friend, whose question gives me the opportunity to say that the chosen person, Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, is a well-respected human rights campaigner of the highest quality and character. There are absolutely no grounds whatsoever for questioning the choice of him for this purpose.

Does the Minister agree that LGBT rights are human rights and that, as such, they are indivisible from any of the other human rights that we are so proud that the UN tries to enforce? Will he accept from me the very best wishes of the LGBT community in the battle he now leads within the UN? If this human rights advocate is voted against and taken away from the UN, that will be a huge setback in the fight to make change in the 76 countries that criminalise LGBT people and use the law to oppress them.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady and am grateful for her good wishes. I hope that the vision of Members from across the Chamber agreeing on this issue will send out a strong message to any country or person who thinks that they should vote the other way or have an opinion that goes against what we would like to see.

Is it not the case that the UN expert is being appointed to protect individuals in many countries from violence based on their sexual orientation? He is not being appointed to promote or to take a particular view on sexual orientation in those countries. It will be a dark day for the United Nations if it turns its face away from somebody who is trying to protect those who should have the same rights that we enjoy in this country.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The appointment is about protecting principles as he has described. How anyone can wish to challenge that is quite beyond me.

When I was a Foreign Office Minister, I was told by one leader of a Commonwealth country that I would not be welcome to visit, so we have come quite a long way. I thank the Minister for what he is doing. Is it not time to make our generous aid conditional on respect for all humans’ rights?

I obviously speak for the Foreign Office, not the Department for International Development, but I am a former DFID Minister. The issue of conditionality always raises the moral question of stopping money, but that would then harm the impoverished people we are trying to help. It is not as straightforward as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I take on board the importance of campaigning strongly and using any budget and expenditure to maximise our influence over this issue.

I am grateful to the Minister and am glad to hear about the Government’s stance. As someone who was beaten unconscious some years ago because of his sexuality, I know how isolated one can feel after being attacked. Does the Minister agree that this appointment is incredibly important for people across the world who are being persecuted because of their sexuality?

Unfortunately, people get persecuted or beaten up for their sexuality in all too many places. That is exactly what we, through our efforts abroad, and the United Nations want to stop. The appointment of this champion—if I may use that word again—is essential. We must ensure that no one is able to block it.

I welcome the Minister’s strong statement and the powerful all-party support for what he has said today. I want to ask about a particular Commonwealth country: South Africa. After apartheid, South Africa adopted a constitution that included provisions against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. What representations are the Government making to South Africa to encourage it to break with other African countries and vote for the amendment from the Latin American and Caribbean countries?

My personal regional responsibilities do not include South Africa, so I am not familiar with the exact detail to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I have no doubt that he is absolutely accurate. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will ensure that the responsible Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman.

Apart from certain African countries, how far beyond Africa into the middle east and Asia is this problem evident?

It is broader than Africa. Of course, one does not always know everything in advance about how a country will vote. The process needs to be one that secures an assurance that countries will vote the right way. However, the issue obviously does go further and that is why every single diplomatic post where we have an ambassador and representation has been absolutely, clearly and unequivocally instructed to try to persuade their host country to vote the right way in the General Assembly.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to celebrate the universality of rights relating to sexual orientation and gender identity? Will he press for them to be linked to existing human rights instruments?

The right hon. Gentleman always cleverly hides a technicality in his question, but I certainly endorse universality. Such rights are inalienable and do not depend on where someone lives. Human rights are for everybody, regardless of age, location or anything else.

The sad truth is that gay men in particular are still being persecuted in Russia and beaten up by the police. Gay men in Iran are still being executed for their sexuality. Gay men in so many other countries around the world can be arrested or imprisoned simply for holding hands. I therefore entirely endorse everything that the Minister has said today. However, is it not a particular irony for British people that 90% of those who live in Commonwealth nations live in countries where homosexuality is illegal because we, the British, wrote those colonial laws? Is it not time that we took that as an important part of campaign for a better world?

Many of those Commonwealth laws are totally out of date, highly inappropriate and should be changed. The Commonwealth system, our diplomatic efforts abroad and, indeed, this House, with all the contacts that individual Members of Parliament have across the world, should all be used to the full for that objective.

Over 400 million people live in countries where being gay is punishable by death, so I strongly welcome what the Minister has said at the Dispatch Box today. I commend the Government’s efforts to defeat the resolution. I want the Minister to consider two issues carefully. First, further to the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), what leadership role can the UK Government play within the Commonwealth to try to see further progress for LGBT people living in Commonwealth countries who are victims of rules written up by the British?

Secondly, will the Minister look at the advice that the Foreign Office gives to the Home Office on people seeking asylum in this country? A constituent of mine, Joan Tumwine Ayebare, a lesbian asylum seeker from Uganda, is currently at risk of deportation back to that country. She has been splashed across the front pages of the Ugandan press, and her life and safety would undoubtedly be at risk if she returned, so will he consider the advice and ask his colleagues in the Home Office to review that case in particular?

No such representations have been made to the Home Office in the past, but I am sure that they will be. The hon. Gentleman’s question also illustrates another human right: the right to life. It is therefore an essential part of our policy to oppose the death penalty in every single country where we make representations —particularly those in which we have interests and programmes on which we are spending money. The influence of the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth can go only so far in that its members are independent, self-governing countries. It is good that they are part of this broader organisation—the Commonwealth—but we have to use our influence as best we can and do not have complete power over them. Those days have long since gone. They are voluntary members of the Commonwealth, but I assure the House that we always use our best influence wherever we can and will continue to do so.

I concur with the remarks made by several Members about the Commonwealth. Will the Minister say a little more about Russia? In recent days, tweets have been put out by the Russian Foreign Ministry and repeated by Russia’s embassy in this country that are disparaging and derogatory towards gay people—part of a pattern of behaviour by Putin. How confident is the Minister that other countries in Europe are not being influenced by the Putin propaganda that is on our Freeview channels every day and put out through the internet and social media?

When a country’s official apparatus adopts such attitudes and uses social media, it takes behaviour to utterly unacceptable new heights. We of course condemn any kind of attacks on gay people, but when they are perpetrated by a country and deliberately, it is even more deplorable than the many other ways in which we see such opinions expressed.