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LGBT Community: UN Independent Expert

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“As this House will know, the issue before us concerns the Human Rights Council of the United Nations and its recent—very welcome—decision to create the post of independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, or what in House parlance we would call LGBT. The chosen person for that role was Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn from Thailand.

The UK 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 has challenged the mandate of the independent expert. I am therefore grateful to the honourable Lady for this opportunity to explain the steps we are taking, which I am certain will enjoy the support of the whole House. We obviously strongly oppose this attempt to reverse the mandate and to block the final approval of the process, something which should be straightforward.

Opponents of this important mandate misunderstand its nature, which is proportionate and properly established by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Since Friday night, when we discovered this was happening, the United Kingdom’s diplomatic network has been making this point in all capitals across the globe. For instance, only this morning, my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns, who is visiting Sri Lanka, secured the agreement of her hosts in Colombo to join us by supporting an amendment proposed by a group of Latin American countries that were the main proponent of the appointment in the first place.

The Government and all in this House believe that the chance to live with dignity, free from violence or discrimination should not be based on 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 this new independent expert in his work. We will resist any and all attempts to block his appointment and mandate”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. The appointment of Mr Muntarbhorn reaffirms one of the fundamental principles of the United Nations: that everyone is equal in dignity and right. It also acknowledges, as the Minister said, that LGBT people across the world continue to suffer from discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Does the Minister agree with me that the threat of suspending the UN independent expert by the African nations is an abuse of process, which could undermine all the work of the UN Human Rights Council? I also point out that, of the 23 votes in favour, all EU member states and accession states in the Human Rights Council supported the appointment. Botswana’s UN ambassador, one of the abstentions in the vote in the Human Rights Council, said that African countries wanted to stress that sexual orientation and gender identity,

“are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments”.

What are the Government doing to ensure the continuation of the EU’s principled position, and how does the Minister see the position of Botswana and other Commonwealth countries in the context of the Commonwealth charter?

I thank the noble Lord for making three very important points. I shall deal, first, with the issue of process. This deployment of a mechanism to the General Assembly of the UN is technically competent, but—it is important to stress this—it would normally be reserved for emergency issues or unprecedented developments. It is not a mechanism for routinely unpicking properly promulgated decisions. The noble Lord raises a very important question in that if this is to become a practice, it becomes an aberrant use of process. There is a danger that that could impugn the integrity of the whole institution, which would be profoundly regrettable.

Secondly, on the issue of our EU partners, I suggest to the noble Lord that this is one issue which transcends borders and boundaries whether we are in the EU or when we ultimately leave the EU. The UK will continue to remain an open, diverse and tolerant society. Domestically we have a lot to be proud of. We continue to be recognised as one of the most progressive countries in Europe for LGBT rights. Indeed, we have one of the world’s strongest legislative frameworks to prevent and tackle discrimination, and that will not change.

On the noble Lord’s final point about the Human Rights Council and the vote that took place, it is fair to say that the United Kingdom regards that vote as duly promulgated. It adhered to proper process and was in every sense a competent and proper vote for that council to reach. It seems profoundly regrettable that that should be the subject of question at General Assembly level.

My Lords, human rights clearly must be universal. What are the Government doing to combat the views expressed by Botswana’s ambassador to the UN on behalf of other African countries that racism must be combated but that they should not combat discrimination based on sexuality? In the coalition we developed a framework for taking forward LGBT rights globally. What has happened to this?

I thank the noble Baroness for a very pertinent question. The UK is playing an active role on this agenda globally. We are proud to be a member of the new Equal Rights Coalition, which is made up of 30 member states and aims to share best practice. This year the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Magna Carta funding provided approximately £900,000 to support LGBT rights and projects globally. From my earlier remarks, I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness that this is a matter of fundamental importance to the United Kingdom Government, and we shall do everything we can to prosecute the case for proper respect for and observance of rights.

I welcome my noble friend’s comments in relation to the Government’s reaction and their efforts to communicate, particularly with African countries. I return to the question asked from the Front Bench opposite regarding the influence that we as a country can apply on the Commonwealth countries in Africa. Are we working with France, the other country that might have the most influence on the African countries concerned?

The Commonwealth is an important part of our international framework of relationships. My noble friend may be aware that there is a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for 2018. An agreement of the agenda and any theme will take place closer to the event, but in the run-up to that meeting we will engage with other Commonwealth Governments and civil society organisations to help us to understand their priorities for the Commonwealth and inform our planning.

My noble friend will understand that within the Commonwealth framework there are particular challenges faced by LGBT people, who face significant discrimination across the Commonwealth, but the United Kingdom Government are resolute in their desire—as I said to the noble Baroness from the Liberal Democrat Benches—to prosecute the case positively for having rights acknowledged, respected and implemented.

My Lords, I very much welcome the strength of the Statement. The rights of LGBTI people is often a very hot and contested matter, particularly on grounds of faith. It is significant therefore that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and most other primates in the Anglican communion have committed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality and to the support of the rights of all God’s children. I wonder whether the Minister would see faith as a resource that might be useful in addressing some of the issues raised on this matter.

The right reverend Prelate makes an extremely important point. Those of us who have a background of faith would always hope that that background should be used in a positive way to achieve positive objectives, which is a fundamental tenet of our beliefs. I thank him for his contribution and I hope that a contribution may be made by the communities of faith in broadening the understanding of the need to respect the rights that are so necessary, recognising the challenges faced by the LGBT community, and trying to ensure that they enjoy the same privileges, safety and respect that everyone else does.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I say that not only as a gay man, but as a founder of Stonewall and the Labour Party’s LGBT global envoy. Sadly, when we push on these issues in the Caribbean, the Pacific and Africa, we are accused of neo-colonialism, so that is probably not the appropriate way to go about this. I request an answer from the Minister regarding whether the Government would consider appointing an LGBT global envoy on behalf of the Prime Minister to put this at the top of our political agenda and, at the same time, with the Church of England and others, lead on the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 76 countries which currently criminalise the LGBTI communities.

The noble Lord makes a number of very important points. I am unable to answer specifically in response to the questions which he raises. I hope he is reassured by what I have been saying on just how much the United Kingdom is not only in the van of both upholding these rights and seeking that other countries follow our example, but energetically pursuing an agenda to try and influence and persuade other countries to do likewise. However, his suggestions are not without interest. I hope that the General Assembly will not block the decision of the Human Rights Council to appoint the independent monitor and expert. The creation of that appointment sent out a signal across the world that I hope will be observed.

My Lords, are the Government working with a coalition of other African countries which have decriminalised LGBT activity? In particular, what role are they taking in working with South Africa to try to defeat the resolution that is going through the UN?

In repeating the Statement, I mentioned that the UK’s diplomatic network has been making the point which we wish to have recognised in all capitals across the world, including countries in the African continent. Fortunately, the United Kingdom has an influential diplomatic network and we are using that as best we can to secure the objectives which the noble Lord clearly supports.