Pacific region being targeted by missionaries - activist
Advocate fears worrying trend and a mixed record on homosexual and transgender rights in the Pacific.
A human rights activist and lawyer says the Pacific Island region is becoming a target for missionaries preaching against homosexuality.
Paula Gerber of the Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation says it is a worrying trend in a region with a mixed record on rights for homosexual and transgender people.
She says Fiji and Vanuatu are leading the way in tolerance, but homosexuality is still a crime in nine Pacific countries.
Dr Gerber told Sally Round as long as homosexuality is still treated as a crime it has a chilling effect on people in the so-called LGBTI community.
PAULA GERBER: They know that they can be arrested at any time. It makes other reform virtually impossible because it is difficult to enact anti-discrimination laws for example whilst the conduct is still a criminal offence. And it tells the rest of society it's okay to treat these people differently, to treat them worse, because they are criminals.
SALLY ROUND: So what sort of examples have you come across in some of the nations which you regard as the worst for LGBTI rights?
PG: Well, let's take Papua New Guinea as an example, where homosexuality can be punished by 14 years imprisonment, the general sense there amongst the gay community is don't come out, don't disclose to anyone your sexual orientation, you must remain in the closet. One of the impacts of that is that Papua New Guinea has one of the highest HIV rates in the world, it is estimated two percent of the population have HIV. So I come at it a lot as a human rights lawyer and academic from the perspective of human rights law, saying, you know, this is a breach of human rights to criminalise homosexuality. But we can also address it and should perhaps be addressing it from a health perspective. In order to combat increasing rates of HIV infection, we must decriminalise homosexuality, we must make it more acceptable for people to be openly gay.
SR: Which other countries are not doing well in this area?
PG: What happens is that the UN has a sort of monitoring role of all countries and their human rights records, and they do this through reviews every three to five years in a process called the universal periodic review. Some Pacific Island countries have said to the UN we are happy to look at repealing the laws of criminalised homosexuality, others have indicated that they will do exactly the opposite. The countries that have said to the UN we will do it is Palau, Nauru and the Cook Islands. The countries that have said we will not do it are Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga.
SR: And to what extent is the church impacting on views here?
PG: The church is a very broad term. There is certainly some religious bodies that are very anti-homosexuality, and others that are more supportive. I think one of the worrying trends is a lot of the churches that have been in the Pacific for a long time are quite tolerant of homosexuality and transgender, but there are signs that outside churches are starting to focus on the Pacific and to send missionaries or preachers there who are intolerant of homosexuality and are indicating to families that if they've got a transgender child, or a gay son or daughter, that they should reject them in order to comply with God's will if you like.
SR: You say Vanuatu and Fiji have shown leadership in the region through their decriminalisation of same-sex conduct.
PG: They have. In 2007, Vanuatu decriminalised, and in 2010, Fiji did. And Fiji's gone even further to embed non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in their constitution. And they're only the second country in the world to do that, the first being South Africa. So they are showing leadership. And what we are see once decriminalisation happens, is non-discrimination protections tend to follow and you get things like pride marches happening. Fiji held an LGBTI themed short film festival. Progress starts to be made once decriminalisation happens.
SR: Yet in Fiji, pride marches have been stopped, despite that embedding in the constitution.
PG: Yes. So I think what this tells us is the law is an important component in achieving change, but it's by no means the only means. You have to have a holistic approach that includes the churches, that includes education, awareness raising, campaigning, a lot of straight and gay people speaking out publicly in favour of LGBTI rights. It's a multi-faceted approach that is needed in order to achieve real change in the country.
SR: And can you just explain why there seems to be tension between for instance, tradition and what's on the law books. For instance in Samoa, where there is a long tradition of Fa'afafine, yet you say that in Samoa they have indicated they have no intention of decriminalising homosexuality.
PG: That's a complex issue. Because of course homosexuality being a crime was introduced by the British, it came from the British Empire as part of colonial laws. And Samoa and all the other countries in the region did not treat fa'afafine and others in any way in a negative or discriminatory way. So the west introduced these criminal laws and they seem to have taken hold. And it's the same in Africa. And now the catchcry seems to be, you know, we're not going to be told by the west what to do and that we should decriminalise, that's our decision to be made and you know, the UN and others need to butt out of our domestic affairs. So I think it's almost a bit of a backlash or resistance to the west or others saying this is what you must do.
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