IBAHRI calls on UK Government to ban conversion therapy and to publish timeline

Friday 28 May 2021

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) supports the United Kingdom Government’s plan to ban conversion therapy as outlined in the 11 May 2021 Queen’s Speech and calls for legislative steps to be taken without delay. The IBAHRI also calls for publication of a timeline to achieve the stated goal.

In 2018, Theresa May’s government promised to ban conversion therapy as part of its LGBT equality plan. However, in the same year three government advisers resigned from the government’s LGBT advisory panel citing slow progress on the ban.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, commented: ‘The intention to ban conversion therapy in the UK is welcome. The IBAHRI now calls on the UK government to take legislative steps to protect LGBTQI+ rights and fulfil its obligations under international human rights law without pause. We draw attention to Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms…without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Furthermore, Article 2(1) and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights uphold equality and non-discrimination before the law of all persons.’

Mr Kirby added: ‘The odious practice of conversion therapy has continuously infringed on the rights of gay and transgender individuals and is without scientific basis. The UK Government must act to maintain its position as an international leader on LGBTIQ+ equality rights and fulfilling obligations to its citizens. Thus, we call for publication of a timeline as to when the ban will come into effect.’

The IBAHRI opposes the use of conversion therapy – an umbrella term for techniques used in attempting to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity; prevent or suppress someone from living with a different gender identity to their sex recorded at birth; and/or reduce attraction to others of the same sex. Professional bodies, including the UK’s National Health Service and the British Psychological Society, have warned that all kinds of conversion therapy are ‘unethical and potentially harmful.’

In addition, several United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms have expressed concern about conversion therapy practices. In statements, they have noted the obligations of states to protect LGBTQI+ persons from such practices by any actors, including faith-based organisations. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, together with the UN Committee against Torture, have explicitly reproached forced, involuntary or otherwise coercive and abusive treatments, while an expert statement by the Independent Forensic Expert Group highlights, inter alia, the ways in which conversion therapy violates ethical principles and the professional duties of medical professionals.

In a May 2020 report, the UN-appointed Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, concluded that ‘practices of “conversion therapy” comprise treatment that is degrading, inhuman and cruel in its very essence’, create a significant risk of torture, violate the right to health, which includes freedom from non-consensual medical treatment, and are contrary to the principles of universality, equality and non-discrimination. Mr Madrigal-Borloz recommended that states ban conversion therapy practices and investigate and, if relevant, prosecute and punish, specific claims of non-compliance under international human rights obligations pertaining to the prohibition of torture and ill treatment.

In 2018, a UK government National LGBT Survey research report found that five per cent of the 108,000 people surveyed had been offered some form of conversion therapy, while nearly two per cent had actually undergone conversion therapy. This disproportionately affected individuals from religious groups, with ten per cent of such individuals undergoing or having been offered the therapy identifying as Christians and 20 per cent identifying as Muslims.

A 2020 Stonewall survey with a specific focus on gender identity conversion therapy found that nearly half of all respondents who underwent gender identity conversion therapy were children when it began. Some respondents reported being victims of ‘severe physical and sexual violence’, which included ‘verbal abuse, isolation, beatings, forced feeding or food deprivation, corrective rape and forced nudity’. The survey further found that those subject to such therapy were more likely to subsequently report severe mental health issues and suicide attempts.

Many religious leaders support the ban, with the Church of England stating that such practices have ‘no place in the modern world’. The Evangelical Alliance has however argued that the new legislation would restrict their religious freedoms. The latter contends that the legislation would lead to the criminalisation of supportive prayers for someone who ‘asked for help dealing with same-sex attraction they wished to resist’. Acknowledging that some individuals may choose to avail themselves of support and counselling mechanisms based on religious approaches, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has concluded that such mechanisms cannot ‘claim “conversion” as an outcome’.

IBAHRI Co-chair and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘In 2021, the banning of conversion therapy should not be a topic of conversation. The practice is fundamentally wrong. It transgresses the basic principles of human rights and advances the incorrect and harmful notion that homosexuality, transgender identity and gender diversity are illnesses to be cured, rather than an intrinsic part of a person’s being. The IBAHRI urges the UK Government to enact the ban on conversion therapy without delay. The government must recognise that such therapy is contrary to principles of equality and non-discrimination under both domestic and international law.’

Ms Ramberg added: ‘The time to outlaw conversion therapy is well overdue and should be banned wherever and whenever it takes place. It is a sinister form of abuse that is extremely traumatic for many LGBTQI+ individuals and perpetuates harmful practices seeking to erase their identity, contrary to protections provided in the law. These practices must be eradicated.’

In the Queen’s Speech during the State Opening of Parliament on 11 May 2021, the UK Government announced that it would organise a consultation before the legislation was issued. The Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, stated: ‘As a global leader on LGBT rights, this government has always been committed to stamping out the practice of conversion therapy…We want to make sure that people in this country are protected, and these proposals mean nobody will be subjected to coercive and abhorrent conversion therapy…Alongside this legislation, we will make new funding available to ensure that victims have better access to the support they need’.

To date, only four countries – Brazil, Ecuador, Germany and Malta – have banned conversion therapy.


Notes to the Editor

  1. In May 2010, the IBAHRI passed the Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Human Rights. The Resolution recognises that discrimination against anybody on the grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity is contrary to the fundamental principles of human rights.
  2. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
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  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

    The IBA acts as a connector, enabler, and influencer, for the administration of justice, fair practice, and accountability worldwide. The IBA has collaborated on a broad range of ground-breaking, international projects with the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, The Commonwealth, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among others.

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