By: Cheryl Leong
Should European Union diplomats be held to the same standards of human rights advocacy overseas?
On December 4th The Delegation of The European Union of Singapore organized a human rights seminar. This seminar was entitled “The Role of Judiciary in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights”. It was to the horror of gay activists in Singapore that formerly nominated Member of Parliament Dr Thio Li-Ann had been listed as a speaker, with the topic “International Human Rights Law and National Courts in Asia”. Dr Thio Li-Ann is known for her fervent stand on maintaining the criminalization of male homosexuals in Singapore.
In 2007, the Singapore Parliament considered and debated the possibility of repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore. It is a law carried over from former British Colonials since 1938. It is a remaining piece of legislation which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men. Section 377A (“Outrages on decency”) states that: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.”
During the parliamentary debates of 2007, Member of Parliament Dr Thio Li-Ann argued against considering gay rights as human rights:
“Human rights are universal, like prohibitions against genocide. Demands for ‘homosexual rights’ are the political claims of a narrow interest group masquerading as legal entitlements….You cannot make a human wrong a human right.”
The Singapore Parliament voted to retain 377A and continues to criminalize homosexual men.
Jean Cheong, leader of gay rights group SAYONI claims that 2 weeks prior to the EU human rights seminar she had made attempts to communicate concerns to Bernhard Faustenhammer, Head of Political, Press and Information Section of the EU Delegation. On December 3rd a formal Statement of Concern signed by almost 100 civil members addressed their deep concern.
The Statement of Concern directly provided parliamentary quotes from 2007 made by Dr Thio Li-Ann and explained how her views were misaligned with the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
“…we are concerned about the underlying principles and values being communicated to the public with the EEAS’s invitation to Prof Thio to speak at a Human Rights event, given her public statements against the LGBTQ community. Under these circumstances, some may construe this invitation as an implicit endorsement of the speaker and her views by the organizer.”
It was to the dismay of these 100 civil members that no official response was given by the EU delegates. Despite strong laws against political demonstrations, gay activists came to the front of the stage holding up signs in protests. Their mouths were symbolically tapped shut with gay rainbow flags. A large rainbow flag was held up at a table during the speech. European Union organizers officially acknowledged the protesting on stage and thanked the activists for choosing a silent approach to respect Dr Thio’s “freedom of speech”.
Sources quoted Dr Thio’s response to a question from the floor:
“I support having a law which prevents the advent of the onslaught of the homosexual agenda, which is not a zero-sum game, which will lead to the decimation of other human rights.”
Activist Jean Cheong of SAYONI describes her disappointment with the EU delegates:
“ I think what upsets me most is that between doing the right thing and upsetting Singapore government relations… they choose to sacrifice us and diminish the human rights of Singapore LGBT people.”
It is unclear as to why the European Union delegates chose to blatantly support the views of a politician that violates human rights. A formal invitation given to a known homophobic speaker appears to be contradictory to the goals of a human rights delegation or advocate. In a country with limited freedom of speech, with a long history of persecuting and criminalizing homosexual citizens, that disallows gay groups to organize and that restricts specific GLBTQ social and sexual health services, having European Union Delegates further giving voice to homophobic oppression was the last thing this Singaporean minority community needed.
It is hoped that this article will bring about a formal address to the accountability of such damaging and irresponsible diplomatic decisions.