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British government should take responsibility for colonial sodomy laws, says Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch deputy director, Asia, tells Gay Star News that the UK government should publicly denounce anti-gay laws that were set up by the British empire
Phil Robertson, deputy director, Asia, Human Rights Watch

The British government should do more to persuade ex-colonies to repeal anti-gay laws, Phil Robertson the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch told Gay Star News yesterday.

Former British colonies Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean still carry Section 377 or similar versions of the British-empire-era law that criminalizes gay sex.

'The British government has a fair amount to answer for,' said Robertson. 'They should be actively trying to persuade governments to take these laws of the books. This is part of a colonial inheritance.'

Robertson added that the British government should make a public statement denouncing the anti-gay laws, like United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon did earlier this week.

The anti-gay law is particularly protected by the Malaysian government, where Human Rights Watch is working to protect LGBT people in the face of frequent homophobic statements from politicians.

'We've had some very interesting arguments in Malaysia,' said Robertson. 'We've tried to say, "why are you enforcing an old British law?" And they've argued back saying "no it's not a British law, we had a law like that before the British law". They were trying to out-British the British with homophobic attitudes. It was really surreal.'

As well as the discrimination against gay people that it encourages, the law is a unjust in Malaysia because it is selectively enforced.

'The number of cases were this law has been used you could probably count on one or two hands but it's been used twice on the opposition leader,' said Robertson, adding that the acquittal of Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy earlier this year was a proud moment for justice in the country.

The former British colony that is most likely to repeal its anti-gay law in the near-future is Singapore, where two men are currently mounting a constitutional challenge to the law.

If the challenge is successful, Robertson said it could bring about positive changes in the southeast Asia region. 'Despite being a small country Singapore does have significant influence,' he said.

Robertson added that the intergovernmental organization of former British empire states, the Commonwealth of Nations, should also do more to encourage the repeal of the anti-gay laws. They should 'set out a timeline for member states to abolish them,' he said.  

Read the full interview with Phil Robertson here.

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