I am mulling over this issue: Is it possible to advocate for human rights and yet qualify it by asserting that not all humans are entitled to rights?

The easiest answer to give to that is to say that if you do not advocate rights for all humans, then you do not in fact stand for human rights. What you stand for is rights for a group of humans or a majority of humans. So, how could you be classified as a human rights advocate.

This issue has now been articulated through NYU’s invitation extended to Pro Thio Li-Ann.

Let us consider the following hypothetical situations:

a) Can I be considered an advocate for human rights if, despite other strong views supportive of human rights, I believe that the worship of idols either in public or private should be criminalised?

b) Can I be considered an advocate for human rights if, despite other strong views supportive of human rights, I believe that the law should state that women must be homemakers so long as there is a child in the family that is below 10 years of age (failing which a criminal penalty ought to be imposed)?

Many of us would instinctively jump at the 1st example as a case of religious intolerance and an infringement of the freedom of each individual to continue as a practitioner of a particular faith. Similarly, many would jump at the 2nd example as a case of gender discrimination if the law mandates that a woman should stay at home.

We have, in our minds, classified gender, race, religion, nationality and language (amongst others) as distinguishing characteristics within the human race and that any discriminatory application of the law in relation to persons on account of those differences as an infringement of their human rights.

So, the next question is: Can a person advocate equal rights for persons regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, language, etc., but believe in the criminalisation of homosexual conduct and still be considered a human rights advocate?

Some of us would readily assert that discrimination against a person on account of their sexual orientation is an unacceptable form of discrimination. There are others that may construct an argument that a provision like s.377A is not discriminatory towards homosexuals and that it only criminalises the ‘act’. The opponent of homosexuality does not discriminate against the individual but only the act that the individual engages in.

I came across some interesting comments at the following site:
http://nyuoutlaw.blogspot.com/2009/07/nyu-outlaw-boards-official-statement.html

There is an individual posting the following comment anonymously:

“jailing someone for a particular act is different from jailing someone for who he is.
an example of jailing someone for who he is would be, say, putting a jew in jail simply because he was born to a jewish parent (and not because he engaged in any particular practice).
another would be putting japanese-americans in concentration camps simply because they were born to japanese parents – not because of any particular acts they committed.
the professor’s argument, as i understand it, is that certain homosexual ACTS should be made criminal – NOT that homosexuals should simply be jailed regardless whether they commit any acts.”

In response to that comment another anonymous commentator posted the following:

“Targeting a behavior that only one group; a) engages in, and b) is defined by, is fairly clearly also targeting that group.
If you make “cheering for the Yankees” illegal, even if you allow people to “be Yankee fans,” then you’re seeking to jail Yankee fans. It’s the same reason a Florida judge found Miami’s Anti-Baggy-Pants law to be unconstitutional last year, because it unfairly targeted minorities.”

The 1st commentator then posted a response, part of which is as follows:

“don’t many (most?) laws target particular groups? Laws against yelling drunkenly at 2 a.m. target people who like to yell drunkenly at 2 a.m. (an activity which is not without its merits). Laws against exposing yourself in public target nudists (among others).”

In relation to homosexuals the problem that is highlighted here is that the sexual act is targeted and not the group. The 2nd commentator is of the view that where an act is done by a group and that group is defined by the commission of the act, criminalising the act is equivalent to discriminating against that group. Homosexuals fall into such a category. But, what are we to make of the rejoinder about the people who yell drunkenly at 2 a.m.

If every human activity that can be identified as being performed by a group is to be protected on account of it being discriminatory if one were to criminalise the conduct, wouldn’t all criminal activity have to be de-criminalised? To criminalise murder is to discriminate against murderers. To criminalise theft is to discriminate against claptomaniacs… etc.

But, I believe that this conduct-group association misses the point. Criminalisation of a particular conduct by the state should be undertaken on the basis of the harm that the conduct causes to others. Murder, theft, assault, etc, are examples of harmful activities that the state proscribes. Where no harm is done to another, the state ought to refrain from proscribing that activity. It is for this reason that I believe that consensual sexual activity between two adults should not be criminalised.

Let me come back to this point about discrimination against homosexuals. A law such as s.377A criminalises the conduct engaged in by homosexuals and it is a conduct by which that group is defined/classified. The conduct itself causes no harm to others. Therefore, it is not conduct that can be classified alongside theft, assault, murder, etc. Prima facie, it is not conduct that the state has an interest in criminalising.

Next: Criminalisation of a conduct by which a group is defined where such conduct does not cause harm to others would amount to discrimination against the group.
Consider the idol worship example. A law criminalising idol worship would discriminate against Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists primarily and possibly Catholics and certain denominations of Christians.
Similarly, criminalising conduct by which a homosexual is defined where this conduct does not harm anyone is discriminatory.

This then gives rise to the next question. We readily accept that discrimination on account of race, religion, language and nationality is impermissible and we see it as a human rights issue. However, there appears to be a debate over whether discrimination on account of sexual orientation raises a human rights issue. I do believe that depravation of any individual’s ability to peacefully carry out activities that cause no harm to others is an infringement of a human right. So, how does one get to be called a human rights advocate whilst not advocating for the rights of some.

I am quite curious as to how an argument might be advanced to suggest that s.377A does not raise a human rights issue. Anyone willing to venture an argument along those lines?

ON ANOTHER NOTE, Prof Thio has struck a rather conciliatory tone after the furor over her invitation by NYU. There was a law student from NYU, Jim McCurly, who posted an open letter to Prof Thio and she responded to it. The following is a small part of her response:

I was sorry to read that you were beaten up – that is never justified; and being called “faggot” is as ugly as being called “homophobe” so perhaps we will leave the name-callers to their own devices and treat each other first and foremost as human beings with intrinsic dignity. (Is that a howl of protests I hear across the cyber-waves by the usual band of demonisers? C’est la vie.)

Let me get this straight. In ‘Thiology’, it is wrong for a person to be beaten up because he is gay; it is wrong for a person to be called a ‘faggot’. However, it is perfectly right, moral and justifiable that the state criminalise consensual adult male sexual conduct carried out in private. Apparantly 2 years behind bars is far more justifiable than being called a ‘faggot’.

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