The British legacy of homophobia

The homophobia recently demonstrated in Uganda and Malawi is a relic of their British colonial past.

Once again, a country that was a British colony has run afoul of human rights concerning gay people. A Ugandan newspaper recently called for the hanging of homosexuals, after "outing" 100 people in a news story. Earlier this year, Malawi imprisoned a gay couple for celebrating their engagement in a public ceremony. The Malawian president granted the two offenders a pardon only after huge international outcry and the intervention of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

The common thread in these incidents is that laws remain on the books that are relics of a British colonial past. In Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, offences under the Victorian Offences Against the Person Act 1861 have metastasised into legal codes that prohibit acts of homosexuality. Even where there are no prosecutions, that such laws remain on the statute books serves as a big stick that silences, suppresses and intimidates gay people.

In reacting to stories of homophobia from developing countries, the narrative from the UK and Europe can have a tone of smugness. It is often forgotten that objections to gay rights in Europe had similar themes, as is now dramatised through incidents in Uganda, Malawi and elsewhere. Only three decades ago, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Dudgeon v UK , sided with the applicant, a gay man from Northern Ireland, who argued that although he had not been prosecuted, the very existence of anti-homosexuality laws was an infringement on his right to privacy.

The court later gave similar judgments in cases against Ireland and Cyprus – interpreting the same statute that Britain exported to its other former colonies across the world. In all these cases before the European Court, governments argued that there was a "legitimate aim" of "protection of morals" in maintaining anti-gay laws. They cited strong feelings against homosexuality based on religion and centuries-old moral standards. One dissenting judge in the Dudgeon case warned that "all civilised countries until recent years penalised sodomy". Painting the picture he imagined, the judge predicted "public outcry and turmoil" if anti-homosexuality laws were repealed. As Northern Ireland remains intact, his fears have been proven unfounded.

Eric Heinze, professor of law at Queen Mary, University of London, believes that there is a "manufactured sensitivity" in pressing human rights relating to sexual orientation. Why shouldn't gay rights attract the same moral revulsion as the fight against racism or violence against women? Can the UK call out its former colonies on this issue? What kind of deference is shown to culture or religion in this type of human rights activism?

Not surprisingly, the colonial history of many developing countries makes them resistant to calls for reform from metropolitan centres in Europe. Activism that is viewed as patronising harks back to the days of empire, when important decisions were made in London and force-fed back to the colonies. These seemingly symbolic considerations are as important as substantive arguments in advocacy for change in this regard.

One opportunity for saying that gay rights are human rights derives from the Yogyakarta Principles. Developed in Indonesia in 2007, the principles are a statement of LGBT rights and the corresponding obligations of states. Importantly, the principles broaden the source of legal and moral authority beyond Britain and Europe. They provide not just an excellent tool of interpretation but evidence that these matters are truly a global concern.

Arguments of nationalism, religion and culture should not preclude intervention in debates about human rights. However, the success of advocacy requires that they be given sufficient consideration: it is not desirable that activists' efforts be viewed as "rescue" missions or top-down gestures from rich, industrialised nations to backward, third-world countries.

Partnerships that empower local activists to articulate their own concerns are a bulwark against such criticisms and go far in reducing charges of foreign interference in domestic affairs.

Philip Dayle is a lawyer, a research fellow at the Runnymede Trust and a freelance writer.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear