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'People are people are people,' says Asia's human rights defender

Gay Star News talks to Asia's deputy director of Human Rights Watch, who is heavily involved in defending the rights of LGBT people in the region
Phil Robertson, deputy director, Asia, Human Rights Watch

As a year of highs and lows for human rights for LGBT people in Asia comes to an end, Gay Star News talks to Phil Robertson, deputy director, Asia of Human Rights Watch.

Two weeks ago Human Rights Watch released a statement criticizing the government of Malaysia for vilifying LGBT people in response to politicians' making a series of shockingly homophobic statements. But how does that political rhetoric effect LGBT Malaysians?

I think it certainly is effecting them. And unfortunately the LGBT people in Malaysia are increasingly a vulnerable minority as we go into the 13th general election, which has to happen between now and April next year.

The LGBT people have become a political ping-pong ball, with the government blaming them for all sorts of things: saying that they are an 'ism' that won't be allowed in Malaysia; saying they are contrary to Islam; instructing the schools to come out with various guidelines to look out for particularly LGBT characteristics.

But the problem is that we haven't seen much better from the political opposition either. Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, has said that he doesn't recognize equality in marriage during a court proceeding. And it's clear also that within his coalition there is a very conservative Islamic party called PAS.

So there's very little national support for the LGBT people. From my point of view it really makes it more important for an organization like Human Rights Watch to step-up and say, 'this is a violation of human rights' and to point out that the worldwide community is going in the other direction, if we look at what Ban-Ki Moon said the other day in New York.

I view it as our job to put out a bit of a protective circle around this community particularly at this difficult time when they are going to be stigmatized and targeted. And we're worried about the uptake in pre-election violence in Malaysia.

And also to get out the message to Malaysia that there are political costs if they allow these acts against the LGBT community to go on. They will face criticism in the international community. They will be targeted by governments in the US and EU and others who have recognized that non-discrimination applies to sexual orientation.

Why is no-one in the public eye speaking out in support of LGBT people in Malaysia?

‪Ambiga Sreenevasan‬ who is the president of the NGO coalition for free and fair elections in Malaysia, Bersih, was invited to open the Seksualiti Merdeka festival that was abruptly canceled as a national security threat last year.

Seksualiti Merdeka had taken place the three years previously without any sort of incident, but Ambiga was considered by the government to be a political person. So by banning this festival and connecting her with it, they could throw one stone and hit two birds.

There have been some unbelievable smear campaigns against Ambiga. Posters put up in her neighborhood saying 'vote for Ambiga, vote for free sex'. And really nasty things. She's the fear that the government uses to persuade conservative Malay male voters to vote for them.

What would be the effect in the region of a repeal of Singapore's Section 377A that criminalizes sex between men?

In Singapore there's been this very successful rapidly growing Pink Dot movement. This year it had a turnout of over 15,000 people which surprised everybody. Thanks to social media.

If Section 377A is ruled on straight-up it will be repealed because it is discriminatory. It does violate anti-discrimination provisions in the constitution. Our hope is that they will strike down.

Despite being a small country Singapore does have significant influence. It is majority Chinese so some countries like Malaysia and Brunei will say well that doesn't apply to us because we're majority Muslim.

But I think it would put the issue on the map in a very significant way. In a way that it hasn't been for many years in Southeast Asia.

We've seen positive signs for LGBT rights in the region this year, like the Vietnamese government consulting on same-sex marriage. Do you think they were influenced by President Obama's historic endorsement of gay marriage in May?

I think there's more to it than external events. With social media there are new communication and organizing methods that are not always obvious to the family around the LGBT person, because the major source of pressure is of course the family.

I think the governments are also starting to recognize that this is a matter of discrimination. Sexual orientation and gender identity is not something that is a political challenge to a government. It's a matter of making sure those people are not intimidated, brutalized or criminalized for what they are.

I think Singapore perhaps is on the leading edge of that thinking. We don't know this for sure. This is a bit of speculation. What we hope is that people recognize that these demands for LGBT rights are not a threat to the maintenance of power.

Apart from Malaysia, where else is Human Rights Watch focusing on for protecting the rights of LGBT people?

We will speak out wherever abuses are taking place. If we see an opportunity to make progress we will try to seize that. But the key is also to work very closely with the LGBT groups themselves. We don't want to get too ahead of where the groups feel comfortable being. We would love to encourage Vietnam to do more if we can.

Most of the laws that criminalize homosexual sex in the region are remnants from the British empire (in Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), should the current UK government take responsibility and do more to pressurize those countries to repeal those laws?

I feel in some ways that the British government has a fair amount to answer for. They should be actively trying to persuade governments to take these laws of the books. This is part of a colonial inheritance.

We've had some very interesting arguments in Malaysia . We've tried to say, 'why are you enforcing an old British law?' And they've tried to argue 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.

Would you encourage the British government to make a public denouncement of these laws, like the UN did earlier this week

Yes, the British government should recognize that part of the problem comes from its colonial legacy and should publicly state that these discriminatory laws should be scrapped. Section 377A should be relegated to the dustbin of history rather than re-justified by former British colonies to perpetuate rights-abusing anti-LGBT policies.

The Commonwealth of Nations, which comprises the governments of nations formerly part of the British empire, should also develop a clear policy that condemns these laws and set out a timeline for member states to abolish them.

What will be the effect of this week's denouncement of laws that criminalize homosexual sex by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon?

Ban-Ki Moon gets it. And he has spoken very clearly on this. That's something that we applaud. Something that we think the UN should be doing.

And we're hoping that the issue of what the international standards are is quickly resolved. It's quite clear that LGBT persons are of course covered by all the relevant international human rights conventions.

The UN are making it very clear, what the rights are, what is expected, what must be done. It's good because it makes our life easier. But some countries like Malaysia argue that there's a national regional context which makes it not apply to them.

This is what Malaysia did during the negotiations for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Human Rights Declaration, didn't they? What was Human Rights Watch's view of that process and the agreed declaration?

The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is the perfect example of the Southeast Asian countries creating an end-run around international human rights standards.

Malaysia set out the general principles and exceptions for regional national context, arguing that if anything goes against what they say is the national culture then they are not bound by the rest of the provisions of the declaration. They are basically putting the loopholes upfront.

The Malaysian commissioner who was on the drafting team said explicitly to a number of NGOs in the region that he was instructed by the government to make sure nothing on sexual orientation and gender identity got into the document.

The way that ASEAN works, which is that one government can object and stall everything, meant that Malaysia had the upper-hand.

What we effectively have now is a regional human rights declaration that is sub-par. It undermines international human rights standards rather than upholding them, which we see as profoundly problematic. It's not just LGBT rights, freedom of association is not explicitly protected so the trade unions are angry.

People like us who focus on international human rights standards don't accept having various exemptions or cut-outs because you are from a particular region or a particular country. People are people are people. And to argue that because people are Thai or Malaysian that they have less rights than others doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

What's your proudest achievement to do with LGBT rights in Asia at Human Rights Watch?

It wasn't necessarily strictly about LGBT rights, but there was quite a bit of an elation when Anwar was acquitted. In part because the whole trial was so clearly politically motivated. It was crunch-time for the independence of the Malaysia judiciary, and they managed to come through.

From the perspective of LGBT rights. I think it also probably damaged the effort of the government to try to enforce 377A. Simply because it's quite clear that in Malaysia there has been such selective enforcement. The number of cases were this law has been used you could probably count them on one or two hands but it's been used twice on the opposition leader.

We, like everyone else, expected Anwar to be found guilty. We had actually prepared a press release. And I had my finger on the keyboard to hit the send button, when Anwar's daughter tweeted from within the courtroom 'Daddy's not guilty'.

That felt quite exciting, because we felt we had contributed in some small way to really raising the profile of this issue and making it a test case, for non-discrimination in Malaysia but also for judicial independence.

How did Human Rights Watch contribute to that?

We've been involved in the Anwar case for some time. In December 2011, a couple of weeks before the verdict, we put out a press release that said 'it doesn't matter whether he is guilty or not, what he's being tried for should not be a crime'. And said that very clearly.

It didn't frankly get that much pick up in the Malaysian media. But when I went down to Malaysia and met with the LGBT groups after that, they had all read it and they were all very very laudatory and said that's exactly what we needed.

Do you see the human rights of LGBT people as a major focus for your work in 2013?

It will be a continuing part of our work. It's something that we will continue to push on. This is something that is too important to be left aside and there's a number of places where we feel we can make some very significant progress.

We think that it's right for us to be pushing it. But it has to be done very clearly in coordination with the local groups, because they are the people who are going to face retaliation if it comes. 

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