Equality Rights group GGR - Citizenship in Democracy EQUALITY RIGHTS GGR

News and Information from Gibraltar on Equality, Human, Gay and Social Rights

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Age of Consent: Gib Govt could provoke international stand-off

Referring to the presentation of a Bill to equalise the age of consent in Parliament yesterday, Felix Alvarez, Chairman of Equality Rights Group GGR has welcomed the fact that “after 9 years of GGR raising the public debate on sexual minorities in Gibraltar, we are pleased to see that Parliament has finally considered the
question of age of consent inequality currently in force.

Mr Alvarez stated that “Justice Minister Mr Feetham’s private support for a change in the law is notable, as is the unanimous and principled support in favour of equality given by the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP)/Liberals not only now, but for the past 6 years. Leading opposition member Fabian Picardo’s unwavering arguments on behalf of the Opposition was the culmination of solidarity with sexual minority citizens in Gibraltar since 2003.”

“Whilst Government has failed to introduce the debate as a public Bill on what, after all, is a public issue and, instead, preferred to rely on one of its own members in a purely private capacity, it has, nonetheless passed the motion to proceed on the formal reading of a Bill to equalise the legislation. This, in effect, falls short of Government’s legal requirement to comply with what is unarguably an international law obligation and not, as they have argued, a mere question of ‘conscience’.

“In this, the Opposition’s vote against proceeding on a Private Member’s basis is consistent with their principled stand on the need for Gibraltar to respect and comply with international law commitments. They have, however, made absolutely no bones about their commitment to equality for sexual minority citizens in Gibraltar. It is, in our opinion, an admirable position to have taken and we cannot but agree with their view that Government has collectively failed in this regard.”

However, Mr Alvarez continued by saying that “No change of the law occurred today. What we have witnessed in Parliament is just a first stage. The government benches have today refused to confirm, in questions from the Opposition, as to whether they intend to support the proposed Bill or not when it eventually comes before the House. Whilst we would hope that Government complies with its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights by voting majoritarily in favour of equalisation, if it steers away tactically from doing so, it would be acting provocatively by purposely leading Gibraltar on a head-on collision with both the United Kingdom government and the Council of Europe. And that would be a disservice to Gibraltar and Gibraltarians.

“We must understand that the British government itself is duty bound to honour the European Convention of Human Rights, and any obstacle on the part of the Gibraltar Government by permitting voting against equalisation would be an act of high irresponsibility in terms of the Gibraltar-UK relationship. Gibraltar has more important things to do at an international level than to endanger that relationship by provoking situations such as these.”

“Failure to comply with international law on the part of Government could once again result in it being forced to the highest courts in the land at huge cost to the taxpayer. This would exacerbate the already extravagant spending government is undertaking in defending the issue of discrimination against same-sex couples in housing.”

“Government Ministers have been suggesting that the matter must be put to a ‘conscience vote’ since, it has been said, they have scope to argue maintaining the inequality on the basis of “reasonable and objective” justification in law. After hearing the debate in the House today, it is difficult to believe they sincerely hold this recalcitrant opinion, as the European Court thoroughly demolished that particular argument back in 2003 and Government would be well-advised to reconsider their position before embarking on dangerous confrontations with HMG, which risk direct intervention on an issue of international law.

“Furthermore, that a Bill which purports to ‘modernise’ legislation should continue to retain demeaning and insulting language to the disabled in our community is wholly unacceptable.

“Mr Feetham’s Bill perpetuates the anachronistic language of old legislation by labelling the cognitively disabled as “imbeciles, idiots and defectives” and his apologia in the House today for this fact just does not wash. Given his welcome move to address inequalities in our community, it would be advisable that, in a Bill whose principle aim is to equalise the age of consent he either drops the sections in which these terminologies arise in favour of addressing them appropriately and respectfully in his announced wider modernisation in a proposed new Crimes Bill, or he amends the terminology. Perpetuating offensive language on administrative grounds is both condemnable and disrespectful.”

“Furthermore, the retention of the offence of “gross indecency”, a 19th century legal term created to punish homosexuality, has long disappeared from most statute books in favour of a gender and sexuality neutral focus around the issue of public order. For most reasonable people will agree that what consenting citizens of any sexual orientation do in private is nobody’s business, least of all Government’s. Again, the thinking behind the drafting of this Bill suggests a regrettable lack of awareness as to what modernisation requires in terms of equipping the law to the context of the century we live in. Nonetheless, we fully welcome Mr Feetham’s move to remove the offensive term ‘buggery’ from the statute book and see no reason why the more factual and correct term ‘anal intercourse’ could not be used in a neutral manner.”

“In brief, it is far too early to make definitive statements. We reserve our judgement until the outcome of the debate on the Bill eventually comes before the House. At that stage, the intention behind current moves will become clearer. Meantime, there will be no let-up in GGR’s campaigning on this issue” Mr Alvarez ended.