Challenging governments and making the legal case for LGBT equality in Africa and beyond: INTERVIEW

2016. A new trend is sweeping the world. Country by country, nation by nation, legislation is being passed to grant LGBT people something missing to date: equality. Couples of the same sex are gaining the right to marry, adoption between two gay mums or dads is normal, LGBT people are being celebrated in the workplace and in all areas of public life. For us, at least in the West, that distant place that’s been out of reach for generations of gay and trans men and women is at last getting closer. We can almost touch it.

‘What we have managed to do is present the criminalisation of the LGBT community as persecution and as an extremely serious human rights violation, and therefore putting so firmly and clearly the legal approach to international human rights.’

But this utopia, this pleasant nice-to-have which perhaps many of us take for granted is not merely even a thought in the minds of the silenced millions, away from the bright lights of equality in this world with which we are so familiar. Right now, in 2016, there are scared men, women and children whose own governments are actively sponsoring legislation against them, endangering their future, as well as their safety. Who will help them?

Enter the Human Dignity Trust. Set up in 2011 to provide legal support to LGBT people facing prosecution by the State because of their sexuality or gender identity, the trust’s lawyers circumnavigate the globe to defend its clients from human rights violations, taking governments to the courts, giving hope to those who have none.

Whilst celebrities advance the gay rights banner in the West, in Africa, Asia and Central America Human Dignity Trust lawyers are fighting for the very basic of rights for our cousins. To the terrified closeted gays living under the radar in Nigeria, to the Russian pro-gay activists living every day in fear of attack on the streets of Moscow, the lawyers who go to these regions are the equivalent of our celebrated popstars. Only they don’t receive the wide praise, are not adored by thousands and will wake up tomorrow to argue another case, in another country, and not look for even the briefest of thanks.

In the first of a special two-part interview with Emerald Connect, Jonathan Cooper OBE, CEO of the Human Dignity Trust and international human rights lawyer, tells of the journey his organisations has travelled to date, and how the trust is changing lives as well as whole countries one legal case at a time…


What does the Human Dignity Trust do in 2016? And where is it going?

Well we have been around for five years now, so we are pretty established. We’re a recognised organisation globally and people come to us for advice and support from all over the world. What we have managed to do is really present the criminalisation of the LGBT community as persecution and as an extremely serious human rights violation, and therefore putting so firmly and clearly the legal approach to international human rights. And by putting it in a legal sense, we have been able to create debate and a legal way to discuss it.

Arguably the main advantage of litigation is it means you have a rational discussion. You have to talk about homosexuality legally because you are doing litigation and you are in a court. You can’t be hysterical. You can’t start arguing what the Bible says or doesn’t say because that has no place in the law courts. And so you get to have a rational debate and a rational discussion and that then helps that debate become rational to society. It’s interesting: does litigation lead or follow? I don’t know… sometimes it leads and sometimes it follows. In Belize, for example, where there was a case brought, homosexuality had never been discussed in society, or if it had it had been hysterical. Then this case is brought and there’s a rational debate and a rational discussion which continues in the media, it continues in everyday life… and so you have this extraordinary experience of people saying things like, “actually I would just like to tell you I am gay, and I’ve never been able to tell anybody.” So I think HDT has played an important role in making it clear that to criminalise the LGBT community is to persecute the LGBT community, which is a very serious violation against human rights.

You’re are also changing cultures, not just legislation. That must be a hugely satisfying achievement?

Oh yes. Whenever there’s change, whenever there is just a miniscule positive shift it’s great. But it’s not just us. We’re a small cog in a big huge machine. The UN is massively behind this now, many governments are, the Americans, the French. The European Union is amazing on this stuff… that’s an issue we all need to think about: if we do Brexit what are we as the LGBT community going to do? Most of our rights have come from the European Union, and it’s the European Union that is there leading the movement for LGBT rights abroad, as well. We are all part of a big process, and there’s obviously the activists that we work with; they’re the real heroes; they really bring the change. It’s Caleb in Belize, it’s Frank in Uganda, it’s Eric in Kenya, it’s Gift in Malawi. They’re the people that are driving the change and they’re extraordinary. I’m always amazed by these people. Why would you come out? You’re crazy to come out in these countries, they’re mad. But they do because they are good, strong principled people. They are remarkable! For instance, you can count how many openly gay people there are in Uganda on your fingers and toes, and we know them all. Obviously there are hundreds and thousands of gay people in Uganda, but most of them don’t identify in any way, and just have sex. They don’t live that fulfilled life as what we would call a ‘gay man’ or a ‘lesbian’. It’s a tragedy, a human tragedy.

We often put distance between where we are in the UK and where violations of international human rights occur, but there are also matters going on closer to home that you are involved with…

We were acting for a chap who brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights involving Northern Cyprus and because he was about to win – he would have won – the government there changed the law. So, that case has all finished, settled. It’s now perfectly lawful to have sex if you’re two men in Northern Cyprus. It was a wonderful feeling. From one day to the next something became lawful and that was great. Nowhere within the wider European space criminalises homosexuality, Northern Cyprus was the last little pocket in Europe. But then you have the horrible anti-gay laws in Russia, the anti-gay propaganda laws. Are they crimes against human rights? The jury is out on that, but just because they don’t criminalise you for having sex doesn’t mean you don’t get persecuted. For us though, the principle focus is criminal laws; those that expressly criminalise you for having sex with somebody of the same sex.

‘You’re crazy to come out in these countries, they’re mad. But they do because they are good, strong principled people.’

How did the founding of the Human Dignity Trust come about?

It came about because there was an anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda which had the death penalty attached to it for being gay, or for aggravated homosexuality. The guy who set up the trust was asked to advise the Commonwealth Lawyers Association for its compatibility with international human rights law. Unsurprisingly, he found it to violate international human rights law and, as a straight man, he had never really come across criminalisation, and felt something should be done about it. That was the main engine to setting the organisation up.

And how did you, Jonathan Cooper, become interested in human rights?

For me it was the AIDS crisis. In the mid-80s it was clear that the law was inadequate to protect people who were either living with HIV or vulnerable to it, or the groups who were most likely to be affected by it in this country. Because of that I became acutely familiar with the failings of the English legal system. It’s quite interesting when you reflect back on that time how the law failed people with AIDS: it fundamentally failed them on every level. Back then you could be detained, you could even be fired. You had no privacy, you were exposed to all kinds of risks and harm. There was nothing there to protect you, and that’s what the law is there for, to protect you. I became aware the UK needed a proper human rights protector. A bit later in my twenties, I decided to qualify to become a barrister and wanted to do human rights law, and so I joined the chambers which I’m still a member of. I then started working on human rights issues, mainly prisoners’ rights, initially. If you really want to look at the state at its most powerful, look at how it treats its prisoners. By that point, it was the mid-90s and the debate was around how do we get adequate human rights protection in the UK. So, I became involved in what’s now known as the Human Rights Act debate. I worked at both Liberty and Justice to help push for better human rights protection in the UK and I guess by then I was simply a human rights lawyer, there was nothing I could do about it; I’d just naturally become one. I’ve done it ever since in various aspects. I’ve done a lot more international human rights law; I’ve done a lot around terrorism which has been interesting. I do a lot of work for the Foreign Office, a lot of work around data privacy and issues like that.

Your CV is vast. Looking back, what are you most proud of, professionally?

I think it’s probably work around HIV. The HIV work was a defining moment; just the fact that I was able to be involved in that, it still is the main thing that motivates me in this job. You know, how does the law protect people with or at risk of HIV? That’s something I feel very, very strongly about. People with HIV are going to be vulnerable by the sheer fact that they have HIV, we know those people come from vulnerable groups or communities; how does the law protect them?

Are you satisfied that the law in the UK today provides adequate protection to those living with HIV?

It’s a lot better than it was. Considerably better. That’s why when I hear arguments to repeal the Human Rights Act I think are you insane? It’s only just about good enough. But at least it is good enough.