Opinion: New Zealand must help advance LGBTQ+ rights in the Asia Pacific

Leadership Network member Vinod Bal reports back from attending Sydney World Pride 2023’s Human Rights Conference where he heard from leading human rights activists about the struggles for equality being faced by LGTBQ+ communities in the Asia Pacific region. Vinod was assisted to travel to Sydney for the conference by a Leadership Network travel grant.
Former Labour Party MP Louisa Wall on stage talking into a microphone with a panel of six fellow panelists

Former Labour Party MP Louisa Wall addressing the conference

LGBT+ rights are often tentatively grounded in public opinion. This is the context that activists across Asia, and the world, work within. LGBT+ activists must not only employ legal interventions, but social and cultural as well. It is tiring work.

LGBT+ rights being tentatively grounded in public opinion is no way to approach any set of human rights. Human rights are inherent in one’s humanity.

The purpose of human rights is to guarantee their manifestation, even against the distain of majorities. Therein, human rights are not to be disregarded because they’re  unpopular. Indeed, this is even more a reason to embed them.

Sydney World Pride 2023’s Human Rights Conference sent these messages, loud and clear. 

The conference was amazing. It was the largest LGBT+ rights conference in history, with 1800 participants from all parts of the world.

The conference being hosted in Sydney meant that, naturally, there was a regional focus on the Asia-Pacific, an area often left out of LGBT+ popular discourse.

Many individuals attended from New Zealand, some even spoke too! Being a part of this history-making event was special, meaningful and provided immense utility. 

Asia is home to roughly 220 million LGBT+ people. In this region, human rights battles for the rights of LGBT+ people are taking place in courtrooms, national assemblies, and in the hearts and minds of the Asian citizenry.

I was lucky enough to hear from some of the human rights defenders who are leading the LGBT+ rights charge, in or regarding places like Afghanistan and Indonesia, where LGBT+ rights are increasingly under attack.

At the conference, I attended a panel about advancing equality law in Asia. The director of APCOM, Asia’s largest LGBT+ charity, was facilitating the session with eminent activists and lawyers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Sri Lanka.

The Hong Kong speaker reminded the audience that LGBT+ rights cannot flourish in environments where civil and political rights are being curtailed, citing Hong Kong as an example.

This was a great insight and reminded us that all human rights are interdependent and we must stand for civil and political rights, alongside our specific LGBT+ rights demand.

The Taiwan speaker talked about her experience leading the (successful) marriage equality movement in Taiwan. She talked about bringing the public with her and not just relying upon the law to change the hearts and minds of the public.

A woman on stage speaking into a microphone with three people sitting on chairs behind her

Dr Elizabeth Kerekere addressing the room

The Sri Lanka speaker talked about her recent (successful) case of taking Sri Lanka to the United Nations, claiming their criminalisation of homosexuality activity violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. She reminded us of the influence that international organisations can have regarding gaining LGBT+ rights. 

I also attended a panel about LGBT+ refugees. The Afghani speaker talked about the horrors that the Taliban has been inflicting on LGBT+ individuals, from executions to torture. Indeed, this is something that I reflected upon a fair bit during the conference.

While New Zealand is far from perfect in regards to LGBT+ rights, it is better than most. Yet, I wonder how much New Zealand’s LGBT+ community dwells on the status of our LGBT+ siblings in Afghanistan. I suspect, probably not that much.

New Zealand is better than most. Yet, I wonder if New Zealand’s LGBT+ community uses their relative privilege to stand up for the rights of our LGBT+ siblings that are being trampled on overseas. Again, I suspect not that much.

Sydney World Pride 2023’s Human Rights Conference, more than the information, more the experiences, more than the connections, demonstrated to me that the LGBT+ community in countries with relative LGBT+ rights realisation, like New Zealand, need to continue to celebrate our pride in our identities, but do so with purpose, and that purpose needs to be attached to the goal of LGBT+ emancipation around the world. 

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network equips New Zealand’s next generation of Kiwi leaders to thrive in Asia. We provide members with the connections, knowledge and confidence to lead New Zealand’s future relationship with the region.