"We've started the journey to full legal rights"
Brian McCann interviews
Equality Rights Group GGR
The group you Chair started out as Gibraltar Gay Rights, but you have since then expanded your campaigning to cover other groups that you feel don’t get equal treatment under the law. Is that correct, and, if so, who are some of these groups?
Yes, that’s absolutely right. In the early years we charted some difficult waters, inasmuch as we were dealing with one particular issue, an issue that had never been addressed before in Gibraltar. But I’m glad to say we’ve made considerable progress since then: we are a group now which has of necessity expanded to take into account a wide range of human rights issues which also need attention.
We are still one group, but we now have different issues within that group. That’s why we just call ourselves Equality Rights group GGR under the logo “Citizenship in Democracy” nowadays – we care equally about the various issues we raise.
We have to be open to evolving social conditions and we’ll continue to develop to reflect the needs of different people, and that presently includes those concerned about sexual abuse of children, British residents on the Rock and disability, which is another area which is proving increasingly of concern.
In general, do they welcome your support?
We do not take up issues without people first expressing their concern to us. It is our role to listen to the community and to respond with support where needed. Ofcourse the issue that is most at the fore of public attention right now is the one that came to us via the many who were worried about the sexual abuse of children. And affecting as it does young people we are giving this our fullest support.
In relation to that, your current campaign is collecting signatures for a petition to urge the government to set up a Sex Offenders’ Register in Gibraltar. How is that being received by the public?
We could never have imagined the overwhelmingly positive response we’re receiving! In a short time we have already collected 3,000 signatures – and that’s just in the Main Street area. We still have the rest of Gibraltar to cover; our next port of call will be the housing estates. But it’s hard work and takes time. You also have to listen to people’s concerns and answer their questions, so we’re probably looking at March/May to complete the campaign.
I also have to say we have heard some shocking personal anecdotes – predominantly from women of all ages. Men, I think, are probably warier of revealing such things but we have also received information from men who have been through the trauma of abuse.
Am I right in saying that you are mainly thinking of child sex abuse in staging this petition?
We recognise that abuse is a wide-ranging issue – it can be sexual or physical or psychological, a wide spectrum. We’re tackling the first area first, sexual abuse, because we’re conscious of it being the one most easily recognised and which lends itself to a legal solution. We are looking at the UK model for a Gibraltar Sex Offenders’ Register, and I do underline ‘UK model’. In the UK, a conviction is required – not rumour. A judge and jury have to convict, then that person’s name goes on the register.
That register is only available to the police, social services agencies and so on. So when the sex offender is released from prison, his or her freedom doesn’t include the freedom to continue abusing, and if he or she moves from one area to another their particulars will follow in the most confidential manner possible. Confidentiality is an important element here because there has to be a reasonable balance between the right of the individual to reinsert themselves into society and the community’s right to protect itself. And we believe the UK model gets that balance right in both respects.
Have many people refused to sign the petition?
Very, very, very few. Some; but once we’ve explained how the UK model works they usually turn into an approval, and sign. Some thought all the world would know who was on the register; but again, once we explained, they signed.
One person said she’d want to see convictions first, to prove there is a problem in Gibraltar before she’d sign – but we can’t just wait for a child to be abused before we do anything to prevent it. We may have very few murders in Gibraltar but that doesn’t stop us from reasonably having laws against murder after all! Child sex abuse is a crime with some very fragile victims and we can’t forget that.
Are the police and the courts doing their bit?
We’re not happy with the difficulties in obtaining psychological reports before the case goes to court. We would be happier if each case were assured a forensic psychological report so that reliable expert evidence accompanied the allegations for the judge and jury to take into account. Expert information in such cases is a critical element to protect both innocently accused people and abused victims. A conviction without a psychological report is difficult, because basic principles of justice mean it is difficult to re-try a case except under very exceptional circumstances. Methods of child interviewing which allow children to tell their story under professional guidance are also important to develop for the courts to be properly equipped with the fullest information. This is, after all an extremely serious offence and there really have to be equally serious efforts to fully back up the prosecution of such cases. Resources should be given to the Social Services and police and we are not convinced these exist. It is not necessarily our view that the faults in the system can be put down to either social workers or the police themselves but are more likely to be issues of resource availability.
Is it a sufficiently widespread problem here for the government to take this step, and the setting up of a Sexual Offenders’ Register? Those sorts of cases seem to be very rare in Gibraltar.
In the first place, the premise of that question is one I wouldn’t agree with. I don’t think the number need be great. In the UK, the NSPCC says that out of every 100,000 citizens, 48 are offenders. If you extrapolate that to Gibraltar, we would have 13 or 14 in our midst. But even if just one child is abused that’s wrong if we’ve done nothing to try to prevent it, and the criminal law should be there to lay down the social ground rules and deter as much as possible. Also, the very existence of a register sends out a powerful signal to paedophiles who might otherwise think Gibraltar is a relatively safe place for them to operate; such a law also foments social awareness and makes it harder for paedophile rings to operate.
But we have had several cases in Gibraltar in recent years; some reached court, some didn’t. As a group, we are now hearing information alleging abuse. But again, it’s a matter of overcoming fear or a feeling of shame about making such a thing known.
It happens with many issues. We’ve seen it with gay people – until people start talking, problems can’t be addressed. The same with battered women. Shame and silence only lead victims to internalise their trauma, often causing depression and a sense of guilt and further suffering. In a place as small as Gibraltar we wonder how many people in KGV or dealing with chronic depression are going through that because of their internalised problems and a consequent inability to deal with issues of this sort.
Have you previously made representations to the government to set up such a register?
Yes, for two years. We started requesting government to take action two years ago when we had the situation of a Welshman who was on the UK Sexual Offenders’ Register, coming to Gibraltar and abducting his daughter – and the police did not have the legal tools to apprehend him.
That’s when we started ringing the alarm bell; we asked if government cared – and received total silence to date as an answer. So we’ve launched the petition on the basis that it’s not good enough for Mr Caruana to remain quiet on an important issue such as this. And there is no doubt at all about the encouragement the public are giving us to persist on this issue. We will return that warm response with our fullest commitment.
On a practical level, the purpose of such a register is to ensure that an offender can’t hide his or her past - when applying for a job working with children, for example. That doesn’t really apply in a place as small as Gibraltar – or does it?
Well, it does apply. It applies anywhere where there is access to children with the possibility of abuse, so it clearly applies to Gibraltar. People here who work in positions of trust with children – teachers, scout leaders, carers, for instance – already have to be vetted by the police. The question is, how much wider and more effective would that vetting be if we had such a register in Gibraltar; we might know about local people who are sex abusers, but what about if a paedophile comes to work here from another country? If we were included in the countries with a Sex Offenders Register the RGP could exchange information directly with those jurisdictions’ Register systems when vetting. We are touching on an issue that has to balance the rights of the individual with the protection of the community. That’s why we’re keen on the UK model – it strikes a reasonable balance, with information only being available to those who really need it.
Getting back to basics – do you think you have made any progress in obtaining full legal rights for male and female homosexuals?
No, we haven’t made full progress – but we have started the journey. There are very significant signs of progress in raising the social debate and community participation – the media has played an important rôle in that. We have also progressed at a political level – the GSLP/Liberals, at the last election, included equal rights regardless of sexual orientation in their manifesto, and they continue to support us.
We campaigned for, and got, the Framework Employment Directive; in Gibraltar that law is known as the Equal Opportunities Ordinance. It was GGR’s first important success in ensuring that the EC directive was transposed into Gibraltar law within a few months of its deadline passing – an exceptional time frame. It was important because for the first time Gibraltar law accepted sexual orientation as a category; it’s limited as it mostly regulates employment, but at least you can’t turn someone away from a job, training or promotion on the basis of sexual orientation.
Significantly, in that ordinance, however, there is the omission of the prohibition of discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the basis of sexual orientation, disability, age and faith; which in practical terms means, for instance, an hotel or a pub could turn someone away for being gay or disabled or of a particular age or faith group under this law. We doubt whether this is likely to happen in Gibraltar but the point is that the law does now allow it! But I am talking technicalities here – at GGR we prefer to focus on practical social realities and that is what we respond to. But discrimination does happen and an example is in access to the current and new government housing stock – gay couples aren’t allowed to apply. It’s as stark as that! So goods and services remains an important omission which obviates inequalities between citizens.
Do you still believe that Gibraltar is the worst place in Europe to be gay?
I don’t think I’ve ever said it’s the worst place, certainly some of the newer EU member States are far worse, as are some eastern European countries. But do I feel that Gibraltar has become a more comfortable place to be gay? I think the answer is a qualified, ‘yes, it has changed.’ In GGR we have an organisation that raises gay issues completely unapologetically, and which has gained respect and encouraged people of all sorts to be open. Many people used to spend too much energy and time concealing their sexual orientation. Many are now finding they have better and healthier things to do with their lives.
How many active supporters does GGR have – and are they all gay?
We’re no longer in a position to tell you that. Until January 2005 we had approximately 850 people signed on as subscribers, but there were worries about information getting out in this small community. We were asked to remove the database and we followed the decision of the majority in this.
As an Executive, we resisted this move at first, because of the difficulties it would cause in administration, sending out information, collecting subscriptions and so on, but in the end we acknowledged that people felt more comfortable without a database and we scrapped the membership list. This had the extra benefit in that it encouraged more people to join.
What is the composition of the executive?
Our executive is a faithful representation of how we take in various areas. There are currently six people on the executive, three are gay and three are not. That is a welcome development. It signifies that straight people are coming out in the same way that gay people had to shed their cover; straight people are now more willing to make the effort to actively stand up against prejudice, for example, by objecting to homophobic remarks. They have had to explain to people that just because they stood up for gay rights didn’t mean they were gay themselves. And believe it or not that has been an eye-opener for some in this community! I myself am white but because I stand up against racism doesn’t make me black, after all! At GGR, although we started by focussing on gay issues, from day one we’ve always said we stand by other marginalised groups – and we’re living up to that vision and continue to build on it.
What other issues concern you?
In this week’s papers, we read that an elderly man was found dead in a Varyl Begg flat; it seems he’d been dead for several days. I find that extraordinarily sad, that in Gibraltar we’re not alert to old people living alone, who have no nearby relatives, who have no one in regular contact. Regrettably, the Social Services system didn’t work for this person. In a small community like ours it’s all the more concerning as we can see each other every day. I am certain social workers strive to do their best in these situations, but what worries me most is how Social Services may be under-funded and under-resourced. What kind of political priorities can permit the elderly to be so unattended? The police have a Community Plan, including (I understand) visits to the elderly, but it hasn’t worked in this particular case. That’s not the fault of the police alone – it’s a matter of coordination between neighbours, the RGP and Social Services. Lonely deaths of this sort are a trend in larger countries where the incidence is higher – yet its appearance in Gibraltar should flag up a failure in the system. As Gibraltarians we cannot remain indifferent before any of these facts! It is our human and civic duty to respond and not remain silent.