Two steps forward, one step back for LGBTI rights

In the lead-up to Prime Minister Rudd's announcement of the government’s disastrous Papua New Guinea refugee ‘solution’, an event took place that understandably escaped much public attention.

Hours before the harsh new asylum seeker policy was unveiled, Foreign Minister Bob Carr convened a roundtable of community representatives to discuss Australia's "international agenda" on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights.

To his credit, as well as bringing us up to speed with the government's work in the area, Carr also wanted to hear from non-government organisations about what the government could do better.

True to form, the NGOs in question got together in advance of the meeting and prepared over 20 actions under six themes for the Minister to consider.

Making LGBTI rights a part of Australia’s foreign policy was at the top of this list and we were pleased that shortly after the meeting the Minister issued a commitment that LGBTI rights was now part of Australia’s ‘core’ foreign policy.

By doing this, the government sent a clear message to its diplomats across the globe that they should start to consider how to incorporate LGBTI rights in their work.

For while marriage equality occupies much public debate in Australia, in other countries being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex can mean persecution, abuse, imprisonment and even death.  

This means that Carr's commitment has potential to have a real impact. It can help bring human rights atrocities under the spotlight. It can drive the government to support intersex babies in Africa who are dumped in rubbish tips because of their physical differences. It can improve our efforts to help countries still fighting an HIV/AIDS endemic or help promote LGBTI health issues on the ground.

Despite the negative views on homosexuality in much of the Pacific region, various cultures celebrate and respect a range of identities that we might call transgender. Supporting these minorities to attain the fullest possible health and well-being is an important goal that Australia can support.

In multilateral forums, Australia is well-positioned to encourage our Asia Pacific neighbours to progress the rights of LGBTI people. One such way is via the UN’s Universal Periodical Review, where countries' human rights records are reviewed. In last year's reviews, two Pacific region countries committed to decriminalising homosexuality within the next three years. Unfortunately, while Nauru was among these, PNG is yet to commit to such action.

And it’s on this front that Carr's comments are severely undermined by the ‘PNG solution’.

Under the new policy, no asylum seekers ‘arriving by boat’ will be settled in Australia. Instead they will be processed and resettled in PNG – a country whose criminal code punishes "unnatural offences", including homosexual sex. So people who have escaped places like Iran, where homosexuals risk public execution, will be resettled in PNG where they may face up to 14 years in prison for the same 'crime'. They will be trapped in a horrible Catch 22, where in seeking protection they will have to explain that they are fleeing persecution because of their sexuality, but by doing so they will potentially be admitting to a 'crime' in PNG.

Putting people at risk of harm in this way clearly violates Australia’s obligations under international law.

While it is true that there have been no known prosecutions under Papua New Guinea’s anti-gay laws in recent years, the existence of such laws creates an unsafe environment for gay refugees. Indeed, gay people from PNG have sought asylum in Australia due to the persecution they face because of their sexuality.

Australia has a moral duty, and an obligation under international law, to make every effort to facilitate resettlement of such refugees in a country that does not criminalise homosexuality.

If it were not for this ruthless policy, Carr’s announcement could have represented an important and historic step towards helping LGBTI people across the globe.

However, we will work with the Minister and his department to continue Australia’s active involvement in the international push for LGBTI rights and ensure this commitment translates into the improved realisation of human rights on the ground.

Anna Brown is the Director of Advocacy and Strategic Litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre.

This article was first published on Gay News Network.