Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.
I’m very pleased to be here on the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) and for the launch of the video “My Wardrobe, My Right” by SASOD and partners.
The first question some of you might be asking yourselves is what is a diplomat doing at an event like this?
The short answer is “why not?”.
There is a school of thought – with perhaps some adherents in Guyana – which seems to liken diplomats to children in the Victorian era, that is, that they “should be seen and not heard”.
A more realistic view is that the role of diplomats is to represent their country’s interests and to promote their country’s values.
And that is why I am here today.
The UK opposes all forms of violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people as a matter of principle.
We believe that human rights are universal and that LGBT people should be free to enjoy the rights and freedoms to which people of all nations are entitled.
Discrimination is never acceptable. The UK is committed to combating violence and discrimination against LGBT
people as an integral part of the UK’s international human rights work.
So British embassies and High Commissions overseas are encouraged to support the efforts of civil society organisations to change attitudes by supporting anti-discrimination events, such as the marking today of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Of course the UK has not always held these positions. Britain, like almost every other country, used to have discriminatory legislation and practices against LGBT people until relatively recently.
And those laws and attitudes, of course, were reflected in the way Britain administered its former colonies. So, we clearly have some historical responsibility for the legislation that countries like Guyana inherited at independence.
But the UK has been moving in the right direction for some time:
- It was fully 44 years ago, in 1967, that the British parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act which decriminalized homosexual acts in private by consenting men.
- In 1972 there was the first Gay Pride March in London
- In 2000 the UK equalised the age of consent between LGBT and non-LGBT people at age 16;
- In 2004 we passed the Civil Partnership Act which provided significant legal rights for same sex couples
This is not now a party political issue in the UK. All UK political parties have senior members who are openly lesbian and gay and all parties strongly support the promotion of LGBT rights.
The current Conservative/Liberal coalition Government in the UK took a further major step forward in 2010 when Prime Minister David Cameron launched “Working for Lesbian, Gay , Bisexual and Transgender Equality” to ensure a more coordinated approach to the UK’s work in breaking down barriers that exist for LGBT people both at home and abroad. This has been followed this year with an Action Plan with specific commitments covering areas like education, employment, sport and culture.
Of course I am not suggesting that the UK is perfect. London is one of the most cosmopolitan and liberal cities in the world but there are still problems with anti-gay propaganda.
But we are getting there.
Internationally the picture remains mixed and very challenging.
Homosexuality remains illegal in around 80 countries. Shockingly it is punishable by death in seven countries: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Nigeria.
As I mentioned we are well aware of the legacy of British colonial laws prohibiting homosexual acts. Sadly those laws have not been changed in many countries and again, shockingly to me, some 43 Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexual behaviour.
It’s fair to say that the international community continues to struggle to fully recognise the rights of LGBT people and many countries, including many in the Organisation of Islamic Conference, in Africa and the Caribbean continue to actively block promotion of LGBT rights in international fora.
The arguments for this approach tend to be based on religion, morality and culture and that LGBT issues are somehow a “Western thing”.
Customs and traditions are constantly changing. This happens everywhere. There was a time of course when women were treated as inferior to men in every culture and tradition.
Culture and tradition cannot justify denying people their rights. Homosexuality exists among all people and has done so since the start of recorded history. It was not something invented, or practised only in the West.
The UK recognises of course that these are sensitive issues.
It is important to strike a balance between religious freedoms and the rights of LGBT people not to be discriminated against.
But human rights are universal. They cannot be subject to different interpretations of morality. States have an obligation to ensure that laws guarantee the same rights to everyone regardless of sexuality.
And sometimes that means Governments need to lead their people, not simply to follow public opinion.
Although the picture in the Caribbean on LGBT issues may not always seem bright, among Guyana’s neighbours to the South it is often different. Brazil’s Supreme Court recently recognized the legal rights of same sex unions. Argentina and Uruguay also recognise such rights. So, not just decriminalising sexual acts which they did many years ago but recognising legal and financial rights.
The Government of Guyana committed at the Universal Periodic Review at the UN in Geneva in May last year to “hold consultations on this issue over the next two years”. We encourage progress on that and an open and constructive debate.
I want to wish you well in your activities to mark this important day and for the success of the documentary.
Thank you very much.