Following a ten day official visit to the UK which included time in Edinburgh, the UN’s Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, expressed his “deep concern” at what he described as “increased bias-motivated incidents of harassment, threats, and violence against LGBT people, including a rampant surge in hate crimes.”
Noting that this was widely attributed to “the toxic nature of political debate” he went on to observe, in his end of mission statement, that “Deep concern for the instrumentalisation of prejudice in the context of the upcoming national election was a constant observation throughout most of the meetings.”
In just eight years the UK has dropped from number one to number 17 in the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)’s list of the most progressive countries on LGBTI rights worldwide, which is compiled based on UN references and additional legal sources, and reflects policies on areas such as protection from discrimination, ability to marry, and the use of conversion therapy.
In Scotland, Madrigal-Borloz identified official data from the Scottish Government’s Justice Analytical Services which indicates a 75% increase in hate crime incidents against LGBT people in Scotland over the past eight years.
Praise for outreach and education in Scotland
The statement noted that Scottish Government authorities have made an effort to reach out through public consultations so as to better meet the needs of LGBT people, and that an Equality Action Plan is now in development as a result. It also observed that a Non-binary Equality Action Plan is being worked on following extensive consultations with people who had experience discrimination in areas such as health and social services based on their gender, and that Scotland had done a good job of addressing LGBT people’s needs in its strategic work on suicide prevention and mental health.
Madrigal-Borloz found that most civil society organisations which he spoke to agreed with the Scottish Government’s assertion that LGBT-inclusive education in Scotland is largely a success, with good support for teachers to help them deliver inclusive messages. He was reassured that efforts are now underway to educate parents about what LGBT-inclusive education looks like, in order to combat misleading rumours described by officials as fearmongering.
Scotland’s intention to introduce legislation which would directly build several core UN human rights treaties into Scots law was also identified as likely to be positive for LGBT people. Madrigal-Borloz noted that this contrasts with the direction of travel for the UK government.
Concerns about the treatment of trans people
The UN expert stated that in passing the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, the Scottish Parliament “followed international good practice recommended by a vast majority of United Nations human rights bodies, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights.” It was not within his remit to comment on the UK government’s decision to use a Section 35 order to prevent the bill from becoming law, but he expressed unhappiness with the effects of that decision.
The statement described Madrigal-Borloz as “particularly alarmed” by the EHRC’s recent decision to go against its own conclusions of 35 days previously and call for an amendment to the definition of sex used in the Equality Act. “In a meeting with the EHRC on 4 May 2023, the Independent Expert was shocked to hear that the EHRC offered that advice without itself having any definition of ‘biological sex’; UK law provides no such definition either,” it noted.
“The objective of the EHRC was to offer the Government a formula through which it could carry out discriminatory distinctions currently unlawful under UK law, and that will remain so under international human rights law. The Independent Expert is of the opinion that this action of the EHRC is wholly unbecoming of an institution created to ‘stand up for those in need of protection and hold governments to account for their human rights obligations’.”
Speaking to trans people in Scotland, Madrigal-Borloz was told that deteriorating mental health was a serious problem and that some have become afraid to leave their homes, with one 68-year-old trans man telling him “It seems that Westminster is trying to terrorise us.” Scottish politicians also came in for criticism, however. Establishing that there are no more than 25 trans people currently in prison in Scotland – out of a total prison population of around 75,000 – the statement said that the subject of trans prisoners “occupies a disproportionate space in public discourse,” with potentially harmful consequences, and that politicians naming them in public had contributed to spreading inaccurate information about their cases.
Noting that the UK has done well in supporting LGBT people’s equal participation in society in the past, Madrigal-Borloz called on politicians to be careful to make evidence-based decisions free from the influence of stigma.