This week's referendum intervention by Theresa May, who single-handily managed to conflate the two separate issues of human rights and the European Union, marks a direct threat to the ability of citizens to challenge services and governments. For the LGBTI community, our hard fought victories have not necessarily been secured at Westminster alone, but via the very institution Ms May now seeks to exit.
Under the guise of arguing the cautious case for retaining EU membership, the Home Secretary decided to use this opportunity to trash the European Convention on Human Rights, which Conservative grandees, including one Winston Churchill, helped establish after the Second World War. Her speech amounted to suggesting that this foreign court, despite the UK having a serving judge in Strasbourg, was a mere hindrance to deporting suspected extremists. Ms May stated the court "adds nothing to our prosperity" and exiting the convention was the only way to reform human rights legislation back home. A most curious way to describe a system that has helped deliver justice and indeed prosperity to people both at home and abroad.
The only area which Ms May can be given any serious recognition for noting was the continued poor record on human rights across nations such as Russia and Turkey, who are both signatories to the convention. Nevertheless, a seventeen page document produced by the court this month, highlights the vast number of cases the institution deals with relating to sexual orientation, including ill-treatment by police in Georgia, attacks at a pride march in Romania, discrimination in Russia and unfair dismissal from the British armed forces. The court provides a platform for the LGBTI community to safely criticise their national governments, including our own in the UK, and potentially secure a legal backing. In essence this mechanism gives a voice to often marginalised groups that domestic legal systems can fail to address.
The speech also neglected to acknowledge any of the achievements that have been made for LGBTI equality across the continent, including here in the UK, that originated from rulings passed by European Court. The most notable being the equalisation of the age of consent for both homosexual and heterosexual couples in 1997. Other rulings have allowed gay people to openly serve in the armed forces, giving same-sex couples equal tenancy rights and ending the ban on same-sex couples from adopting in Northern Ireland. In 2015 the court ruled that countries must recognise same-sex partnerships, which has resulted in Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi pushing through legislation to provide Italian same-sex couples legal recognition.
It is frankly bizarre that Theresa May and other opponents of the convention would want to demote the UK to the same international status as Belarus, by ending our ECHR membership. Belarus frequently occupies last place in human rights league tables and is the only country in Europe which retains capital punishment in law and practice.
Indeed it would be an exaggeration to suggest that only through being a member of the convention can we maintain LGBTI rights. Yet, it is evident from the number of historical interventions that European Court has made in equality rulings, our membership is far too precious to be reduced to political soundbites by our leaders.
In the backdrop of LGBTI rights being stripped in North Carolina, and in Bangladesh a prominent LGBT activist and writer being brutally murdered, now is not the time to withdraw of a convention that is a beacon and a force for good in safeguarding human rights.
The advances in LGBTI protections have been hard-won, with the ability to challenge previous governments being instrumental. We must cherish this right, not just as a single equality movement, but for the 820 million of us who live under a convention that provides justice and freedoms for all.
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