Foreign Affairs

A sweet and sour dish of human rights

Leading human rights expert and Australia's first openly gay judge Michael Kirby was in Auckland for the opening of AUT's indigenous law and rights centre. Teuila Fuatai  reports. 

As New Zealand corrects a major historical wrong against gay men, a visiting human rights expert is warning against complacency - with a wave of progress-inhibiting attitudes intensifying in the wider region.

Former Australian high court judge Michael Kirby, in Auckland for the launch of the centre for Indigenous Rights and Law at the Auckland University of Technology, reflected on the state of LGBT rights in the Asia Pacific region at a public lecture. 

Kirby, who next year celebrates 50 years with his partner Johan van Vloten, described the situation as a "typical Asian dish".

"It will be a dish sweet and sour, it will have some sweet moments, but boy, there are some sour moments as well.”

While he acknowledged progress in some countries, including New Zealand - which last week passed legislation enabling the expungement of convictions of men for homosexual offences  - Kirby also honed in on “pretty nasty” developments in some of the region’s largest countries.

“Indonesia, which had been a more tolerant sort of country, is now in the grips of what is called ‘Islamisation.”

I want to make it clear that I am not anti-religious. I would still count myself as an Anglican Christian, and I think that upsets some Anglican Christians and Christians to no end.

Severe backlash against a poem, recited recently by the daughter of the country’s first president, showed the fight for equality in the country, and region, was far from over.

Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, who like her father is Muslim, has since apologised for any offence she caused by reading the poem - which compares Indonesia’s traditional cultural practices to some of those in Islamic Shariah.

In particular, two lines have been highlighted as offensive:

"I don't know Islamic Shariah, what I know is that the essence of Mother Indonesia's konde [a traditional hairstyle] is very beautiful, more so than the veil on your face.

… I don't know Islamic Shariah, what I know is that Mother Indonesia's song is so pleasing, more so than your call to prayer."

Kirby also called on AUT to directly intervene in the cases of two young men who were flogged in Indonesia’s Aceh region last year for being gay. The pair, aged 20 and 23 at the time, were thrown out of university as well.

“It wouldn’t be a bad thing if AUT could find them out and see if they need a position in a university or an opportunity to stay because these people are heroes and they’re being cruelly punished.”

Similarly, Borneo and Bangladesh have regressed into anti-LGBT laws and practices, Kirby said. While a lack of awareness around human rights was often tied to religion, as illustrated by  Sukarnoputri’s poem reading, it was not a straight-forward relationship.

“I want to make it clear that I am not anti-religious,” he said.

“I would still count myself as an Anglican Christian, and I think that upsets some Anglican Christians and Christians to no end.

“My partner Johan can’t understand how I can take any of that stuff seriously and says that I should give it away: ‘They’ll be happier, you’ll be happier, and I’ll be happier,” Kirby told the crowd.

“But I’m not going to let any of those old men in frocks take away my religion.”

He also spoke about his own experience as Australia’s first, openly-gay judge.

“My partner said to me….back in 1998 - we’ve got to stand up. I said: ‘Oh, I think this will be better for me after I finish being a judge.

“He said no...so, I had to,” Kirby said to an amused audience.

“But I think it was a good thing, and I think it was a good thing for the other judges. Because then they had to face one of their colleagues, because then it becomes not talking about them, but about us.”

And while progress towards equal human rights seemed too slow for many, Kirby believed “big changes” in his own lifetime showed change did happen.

“They’ll all get there in due course, even the Pope has begun to be semi-nice to gays,” he said.

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