Hating the coronavirus is pointless. But no good will come from turning anxieties and anger against Chinese people

[Republished with permission from the International Network for Hate Studies blog]

By Mark Walters, Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology, University of Sussex, and co-Director of the International Network for Hate Studies

Just over two months ago Mandy Huang was shouted at by a man who told her to “Take your f****** coronavirus back home!” Her friend who tried to intervene bore the brunt of the offender’s rage when she was punched in the head and knocked unconscious. Since then, hate incidents targeted against Asian people, and those who are perceived to be Chinese, have proliferated globally. Violent incidents have been officially recorded in mainland Europe, UK, USA, CanadaAustraliaJapan and Thailand (amongst others). Despite the current resource pressures that the pandemic has brought, incidents of this type have not escaped the attention of the UK authorities. The Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales has already prosecuted numerous corona-related offences with one offender from Dudley receiving an additional four weeks on his initial 12 week sentence for demonstrating racial hostility that included reference to the coronavirus during the commission of his offence. Chris Long, Chief Crown Prosecutor and CPS national lead on hate crime, said that there have been cases of “hate crime directed at communities based on incorrect assumptions and conspiracy theories”. These have been in addition to the “attacks and racial abuse targeted at our emergency and essential workers who stand at the front line of this pandemic and are working hard to keep us all safe and well.” He added that “be in no doubt, we will not hesitate to prosecute those who seek to attack, abuse or defraud people.”

The incidents that have come to the attention of the CPS are likely to represent just a handful of the thousands of offences involving corona-related hate abuse that have occurred over the past few months. Social media is replete with examples of individuals being verbally and physically abused for looking Asian. In many cases the word “corona” has been turned into an expression of hate itself, with perpetrators simply shouting it at people as a form of abuse. Other individuals are being made to feel uncomfortable as people make visible efforts to physically avoid sharing space with them, making tutting sounds, and glaring or displaying disapproving looks.  Racist behaviour of this type not only affects those who are targeted but can have damaging psychological and behavioural impacts on entire communities of people who fear they too could become the targets of such hostilities.

The upsurge in anti-Chinese prejudice, while extremely troubling, is sadly unsurprising.  Billions of people are feeling highly anxious and fearful that Covid-19 will kill them or their loved ones. Frightened people are likely to act unpredictably.  Yet while many people have turned to stockpiling toilet paper, tins of tomatoes and, as personally witnessed yesterday, attaching a four-metre paddle to one’s waist to ensure social distancing, a minority of others have chosen to express their internal agitations in more violent form.  It is nothing new that in times of a perceived physical threat, increased numbers of people lash out violently towards those that they believe as being, at least symbolically, to blame. This is frequently observed in the aftermath of what criminologists refer to as “trigger events”, such as where the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked directly after events such as the murder of Lee Rigby, the Manchester Arena Bombing, and most recently the Christchurch mass shooting in New Zealand. We have observed too how hate crimes increased after the EU referendum with hostilities directed towards immigrants and BAME groups surging for a more sustained period of time.

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has for many served as an almighty trigger event that has sparked hostilities towards those perceived to be responsible. Research has shown that where individuals perceive a group of people to pose a physical threat to their safety (often referred to as “realistic threats” by social psychologists) this will frequently result in biased behaviours towards members of these groups. In some cases, individuals can react violently as their internal anxieties and fears trigger an aggressive response that aims to suppress the perceived threat. There is certainly no paucity of examples of such incidents in the initial first few months of the outbreak.  The virus has been reimagined as a threat posed, not by a biological pathogen, but by specific racial groups. Like almost all targets of hate, its victims need a face.

Racial animosities have been worsened still by anti-Chinese political rhetoric. We know that when leading politicians make disparaging or biased comments against certain groups that incidents of hate increase. For instance, researchers have shown that when Donald Trump sends anti-Muslim tweets, hate incidents against Muslim people increase directly afterwards. It is likely that Trump’s theatrical press briefings where he has persistently referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese Virus” will directly translate into anti-Chinese hate crimes. The leader of the free world has strengthened the narrative that the virus has an ethnic face.

Situational contexts are also important to understanding the surge in hate incidents connected to the pandemic. In places where there are more available victims, higher numbers of incidents will be recorded. Given the virus is more likely to spread in confined environments it is unsurprising that initially there were high levels of abuse occurring in enclosed public spaces including on public transport.  However, as the lockdown has been brought into force rail and Tube users have decreased by over 96%, and with this there will be a decrease in the number of hate incidents occurring each day.  Situational theory is important in explaining crime levels more generally. Although social situations do not necessarily explain why people commit crime, they can have a significant effect on the amount, and location of, criminal activity. For example, burglaries have significantly fallen since the lockdown. The historically low levels of burglaries are most certainly not a result of people no longer wanting or “needing” to commit theft. Rather, there are fewer opportunities to successfully commit such crimes while people are indoors. Like most crimes, however, individuals will find new avenues to act out. Consequently, while anti-Chinese abuse and other forms of hate crime may reduce in public spaces (for the time being), online incidents are likely to continue to rise. Zoom bombing, where someone hacks into another’s online meetings, has already resulted in people beaming hateful content into the homes of unsuspecting participants, including one case where a virtual Synagogue service was quickly inundated with antisemitic slurs and symbols.

Conversely, other physical hate-based crimes will flourish while we all spend more time at home. Levels of domestic violence are likely to skyrocket as the tensions of being at home all day exacerbate the underlying causes of these offences. Although people of all identities can experience domestic violence, women, disabled people and young LGBT people are disproportionately affected. Enforced confinement in private spaces where disablist, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes go unchallenged will cultivate toxic micro-environments where violence will likely proliferate.

Given the high levels of domestic abuse experienced each year this is of grave concern. Crime Survey for England and Wales statistics estimate that last year alone 1.6 million women over the age of 16 were the victims of domestic abuse. In the same year 99 female victims were killed in a domestic homicide. Since the lockdown the domestic violence charity Refuge has reported a 49% increase in calls to its helpline. The Home Secretary has responded by announcing a £2 million fund to assist charities working to support victims, and the UK House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has set out a report on steps needed to mitigate the problem.  It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to protect victims. Indeed the charity Counting Dead Women has already calculated that there were at least sixteen domestic abuse killings of women and children between 23 March and 12 April. With the lockdown continuing for the foreseeable future it is likely that many more women will die at the hands of their partners this year.

As knowledge of the virus begins to mature and more and more countries enter into national crises, the nature and dynamics of incidents of hate and hostility will likely evolve in tandem with a changing narrative that accompanies developments in the pandemic.  From the focus of the “Chinese virus” has emerged a commonly stated strapline that the disease is “indiscriminate”, affecting people of all ages and ethnicities (though UK data suggest that minority ethnic groups are being disproportionately affected by the disease, potentially as a result of structural racism). Political and media attention has also been refocused on death rates, trials for new vaccines, a lack of PPE, ramping up testing facilities, and the need to “stay at home”. This second stage of the pandemic has called for new powers and measures of social control to be enforced in order to reduce the rate at which the virus is spreading. While of crucial importance to “flattening the curve”, this has given some governments the chance to roll back human rights protection in the name of public protection of health. Sweeping new powers have been brought in by governments across the world giving them unfettered powers to surveil citizens and greater authority to police the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and identity.  Last month Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary granted the prime minister the power to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time. His new powers include suspending the enforcement of certain laws, not only those related to the crisis. One day after the new law was passed the Hungarian government submitted a bill to parliament that will make it impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. The old adage of “never let a good crisis go to waste” is a pertinent reminder that critics and human rights observers cannot take their eye off the ball during these frenetic times.

Even seemingly benevolent measures to protect the public can have discriminatory outcomes. Take for example measures by South American countries that only allow women and men out of their homes at different times. This has resulted in some transgender people being stopped and questioned by police, such as in Panama where one trans woman was fined for leaving the house on a day designated for women only.  Other social distancing measures will undoubtedly disproportionately affect individuals from other marginalised groups, such as sex workers who won’t be furloughing anytime soon.

In the coming months of the pandemic, recriminations about the causes of the virus will no doubt be vociferously made as other issues that have captured media attention begin to wane. From the initial anxieties and fears of catching the virus will emerge feelings of anger and rage about its devastating impacts. There are likely to be two salient avenues through which hate and hostility will evolve at this stage. The first, which has already begun, is the propagation by some state representatives and religious leaders of malicious antisemitic conspiracies that Israel is responsible for developing and spreading Covid-19 virus in order to decrease the non-Jewish population and to control the world. Indeed, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed has recently stated “I am extremely concerned to see that certain religious leaders and politicians continue to exploit the challenging times during this pandemic to spread hatred against Jews and other minorities.” No doubt these pernicious lies will continue and strengthen over time.

The second and perhaps more mainstream narrative that is likely to form is that “China” is to blame for the devastating global social and economic ills caused by the virus. In racialising the cause of the pandemic, its saviour will likely be equally racialised, with the US and UK institutions racing to find a cure. The cultural chasm between West and East will be entrenched further as US and European governments reel from the impacts of the pandemic and as each seek to control the narrative of who is fixing it.  President Donald Trump has already suggested that China will need to pay compensation to the USA. The Chinese government will no doubt fight back by spreading misinformation about the origin of the virus and by threatening economic retaliation for those who dare to criticise the State’s own actions. A fine balancing act is required here, where recriminations about the factors that may or may not have led to the initial spread of the disease, including the use of live-animal markets, unethical treatment of animals, and secretive governments that withhold or manipulate important public information, need to be fully investigated. However tough this process might be, it must be conducted without the additional mantra of “Chinese viruses” and “Chinese people” as being to blame for the spread of the virus. The actions of governments are not the actions of people. The heroic efforts of doctors and scientists in China must be at the forefront of our learning from this pandemic. Many of them have already died trying to save others.  Each of them deserves our thanks. There will be many state actors, on the other hand, that will deserve our ire.  Governments often act badly and they rightly deserve our anger. Let us resist the temptation to tar an entire nation of people with their misdeeds.

In the aftermath of this global crisis there lies a dangerous risk that the community fissures exposed by the pandemic will leave lasting social scars. Policing of hate crimes will be crucial to combatting any upsurge in public hostility. Paul Giannasi, the hate crime advisor to the UK police said “we know that fear and hostility are never far apart. Those who stir up ideological hatred have seen it as an opportunity to peddle their existing bigotries, through misinformation and bizarre conspiracy theories. We are working closely with communities to encourage victims to come forward and bring offenders to justice.” Beyond the thin blue line, much more needs to be done to prevent hate incidents from compounding the broader socio-economic effects of the pandemic. Political leaders must now start working with social scientists and community groups to develop strategies to enhance social cohesion and to find ways to repair the social disadvantages that entire communities of people have endured for too long. Indeed, the social justice of the future is not just about creating a fairer economic system that adequately recompenses essential workers, it involves recognising and readjusting structural inequalities that expose specific groups of people to hate and hostility in the first place.

The Istanbul Convention and Its Standalone Right to be Free from Violence: Feminising the Subject of Rights?


In this post Dr Gizem Guney (Doctoral Tutor in Law and Sociology at the University of Sussex, and recent PhD graduate) analyses the Istanbul Convention, with a specific focus on its recognition of the ‘right to be free from gender-based violence’ as an independent and standalone human right. Examining the potential implications of this approach within the women’s rights framework, she questions whether this could be a step forward to reconstruct the male subject of rights.


The Istanbul Convention in Context

We have left behind 2019 with a worrisome level of gender-based violence against women (VAW) across Europe, alongside the evident failure of domestic laws to address the problem efficiently. The Council of Europe Istanbul Convention remains the most prominent legal tool to address VAW in Europe, as the first legally-binding treaty specifically devoted to all forms of VAW (and domestic violence) within the European human rights framework.

Although the Istanbul Convention entered into force only five years ago, it has already been acceded to by a high number of Council of Europe member states (at the time of writing, 45 signed and 34 ratified). With this high rate of accession to the Convention, one could claim that the Istanbul Convention has proved its potential for reconstructing gender policies across Europe.

At this point, it is noteworthy to underline that the UK is one of the countries which has not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention. Although the Convention was signed in 2012, and the former SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford’s Bill, which requires the Secretary of State to produce an annual report each year setting out the steps to ratify the Convention, passed in 2017, legal reforms are still needed to align UK laws with the Convention. One provision of the Convention (Article 44), which obliges states to prosecute criminal conduct even when that conduct is committed outside their territory (extra-territorial jurisdiction), has been particularly contentious in the UK context.

The Domestic Abuse Bill, which aimed to close the normative gap in UK law with regards to the Istanbul Convention (including extra-territorial jurisdiction) fell due to the prorogation of the parliament last year. Despite campaigners emphasising the pivotal nature of the Bill and Boris Johnson’s promise to bring it back, considering the current ambiguity around European laws in the context of Brexit, there is enough reason to not hold one’s breath for the resurrection of this Bill in near future.

Nevertheless, the potential of the Convention is worthy of discussion, particularly its recognition of VAW as an independent human rights violation. The rest of the article focuses on this.

The Istanbul Convention’s Recognition of VAW as an Independent Human Rights Violation

There are many firsts that the Istanbul Convention achieves, at least in theory, yet its practical success remains to be seen. In this article, I explore particularly Article 3(a) of the Convention, which defines all forms of VAW and domestic violence as both a form of ‘discrimination’ against women and a ‘human rights violation’. In doing this, the main focus is on the potential implications of defining VAW as a ‘human rights violation’, together with a brief commentary on the Convention’s approach to ‘discrimination’.

Starting with the discrimination aspect, the Convention identifies VAW as a form of discrimination against women on the grounds that VAW is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between women and men, and therefore a structural problem. What is striking here is that the Convention brings this discrimination reading without any need for proof, such as the unequal treatment of women before the law or the evidence of women being disproportionately violated.

This is not the first time that the discriminatory nature of VAW has been established within the structures of human rights law. In its 1992 General Recommendation 19 the monitoring body of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) made the link between inequality and VAW, and consequently found the violation of CEDAW in VAW and domestic violence cases, although CEDAW originally did not make any reference to VAW.[1] Similarly, and for the first time, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibiting discrimination) in the landmark 2009 domestic violence case of Opuz v Turkey.[2] The discrimination approach of the Istanbul Convention towards VAW is therefore not novel, but essential in the sense that the discriminatory nature of VAW is being confirmed for the first time in a ‘legally-binding instrument’ in Europe.

I would like to focus in particular on the implications of the Convention in its confirmation of VAW as an independent human rights violation. VAW had previously been found by other human rights bodies to have led to the violation of numerous rights such as the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to privacy and so on. This was mainly due to the normative gap in the human rights treaties regarding VAW, namely the lack of a VAW provision in human rights instruments. VAW incidents therefore had to be handled under these gender-neutral human rights.

At this point, we should remind ourselves of the well-established feminist critique arguing that, under the disguise of gender-neutrality, rights are actually gendered. It is not possible to cover the critique in detail here, but it is necessary to establish that:

  • Liberally constructed (gender-neutral) rights exclude women’s gendered problems in their origin and prioritise male interests.
  • In other words, rights are constructed only with the imagination of men as right-holders, and with the aim to address men’s common concerns.
  • Rights are constructed to a male standard and therefore the subject of rights is men.

The Istanbul Convention defines VAW as a human rights violation in itself, in its very own nature, without leaving VAW having to fit in other (gender-neutral) rights categories. VAW had been previously identified as an independent human rights violation in the Organization of American States, via the 1994 Convention of Belem do Para, the first regional treaty that specifically handled VAW. However, the Istanbul Convention is the first legally-binding treaty carrying this onto the European context.

It is important to mention that the journey to this confirmation in the Convention was not an easy one. In the drafting process, some delegations insisted that violence against women merely formed an obstacle for women to fully realise their human rights, instead of being an explicit human rights violation in itself. For example, the United Kingdom suggested the removal of Article 3(a) of the draft Convention, which categorised violence against women as a human rights violation. It proposed this article be replaced with the statement that ‘[v]iolence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights’. This proposal was heavily criticized by Amnesty International in its report, ‘Time to Take a Stand’, which opposed these amendments on the grounds that they could potentially weaken the effect of the Convention.

Deconstructing the ‘Male’ Subjects of Rights?

The questions to be asked then are:

  • Why is this identification of VAW as an independent human rights violation important?
  • What is the message given by the drafters of the Istanbul Convention by this?
  • And, what are the potential implications of this approach in practice?

This outright recognition of the standalone ‘right to be free from VAW’, besides its symbolic value, leads to important legal implications. As the previous president of the monitoring body of the Convention, GREVIO (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence), said to me in an interview, this recognition means that the ECtHR and other human rights law bodies are likely to take the issue of VAW more seriously.[3] The Convention does not leave any room for dispute as to whether VAW is a human rights violation.

This confirmation also allows victims to invoke states’ responsibility to prevent, investigate, and prosecute gender-based violence on stronger and more secure grounds. Recognising the issue as a violation under international law narrows states’ freedom to determine the manner in which they handle VAW within their jurisdictions. It therefore impedes states’ tolerance of the phenomenon, i.e. a failure to address it on effective and appropriate grounds.

As Paulina García-Del Moral and Megan Alexandra Dersnah state, ‘[t]hough the power to enforce those rights lies with the state, the ability to claim rights still has legitimising functions’. As a result of deeming VAW a human rights violation, and thus transforming the language of politics, women have a stronger hand when seeking protection against such violence, which is ‘less about whether or not states will immediately comply with the decisions of institutions (but) more about the extension of what women can demand’.

Looking at the issue from a theoretical point of view, the recognition of VAW as an explicit form of human rights violation strongly challenges the male standard of liberally constructed rights. In fact, by recognising the unique harm that results from gender-based violence (which disproportionately affects women) as a wrong in itself, the Istanbul Convention reveals a shift towards an approach whereby women’s gendered problems are handled in explicit terms, and are not left to be addressed under rights which were drawn in a gender-neutral sense, but ultimately promote male interests. This serves the feminist aim of deconstruction of the male standard within law.

This declaration of the Istanbul Convention does not impede other human rights law bodies, like the ECtHR, from addressing domestic violence cases by reference to other violations of rights contained in the instruments that they supervise, such as the right to be free from torture or ill-treatment, the right to privacy or the right to life. On the contrary, it will strengthen the grounds on which to find these violations. However, to recognise VAW as a human rights violation in itself, within a legally-binding treaty, demonstrates that the human rights law framework has finally reached a point whereby a gendered problem against women is directly integrated into the scope of human rights violations. This is a departure, in terms of the subject of rights, from a male to a female standard.

Concluding Remarks

It is perhaps too early to make conceptual and assertive evaluations on such a young instrument as the Istanbul Convention. Over time, the extent to which the Istanbul Convention will have affected state policies and laws, as well as international human rights responses to VAW, will be more visible and measurable. Undoubtedly, the ongoing state report mechanism, which is supervised by GREVIO, will help clarify the picture. It can, however, still be argued that the Convention has the potential, not only to lead states making necessary legal reforms regarding VAW, but also to deconstruct and redefine the gendered foundations of human rights, which have long subordinated women.

[1] In the context of domestic violence cases, see AT v Hungary (CEDAW Committee, 26 January 2005) Com No 2/2003, UN Doc A/60/38 (2005); Goekce v Austria (CEDAW Committee, 2005) Com No 5/2005, UN Doc CEDAW/C/39/D/5/2005 (2007); Yıldırım v Austria (CEDAW Committee, 2005) Com No 6/2005, UN Doc CEDAW/C/39/D/6/2005 (2007); VK v Bulgaria (CEDAW Committee, 2011) Com No 20/2008 UN Doc CEDAW/C/49/D/20/2008 (2011); Isatou Jallow v Bulgaria (CEDAW Committee, 2012) Com No 32/2011 UN Doc CEDAW/C/52/D/32/2011 (2012); Angela González Carreño v Spain (CEDAW Committee, 2014) Com No 47/2012 UN Doc CEDAW/C/58/D/47/2012 (2014).

[2] Opuz v Turkey App no 33401/02 (ECtHR, 9 June 2009).

[3] Interview with Feride Acar, then President of Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and Retired Professor of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences in METU (Ankara, Turkey, 18 January 2017).


The politics of evidence: ‘Doing nothing’ about LGBT health inequities by the WHO

Po-Han Lee

In this post Dr Po-Han Lee (Doctoral Tutor in Sociology and Law at the University of Sussex) summarises key findings from his recently completed PhD in Sociology, which examines international inaction in the face of the health disparities of sexual and gender minorities.


How is ‘nothing’ produced and justified, and how is it functioning? Here, I will take a multilateral debate in the World Health Organisation (WHO) over the issues regarding health inequities experienced by sexual and gender minorities (SGMs) as an example.[1]

On request by the US and Thailand, the WHO Secretariat produced a report on LGBT health in May 2013 for the Executive Board (EB) – the organ authorised by the WHO Constitution to adopt policy agenda for the WHO governing bodies especially the annual World Health Assemblies. That was the very first time that the LGBT health issue had been put on the table in the WHO governing body. The debate was an intense one, lasting more than six hours, and in the end, the agenda item was removed from the final agenda, and kept only as a footnote. In May 2015, the footnote was deleted for good, and after that, an interstate informal consultation was pursued by Colombia.[2] However, the working group failed to achieve any consensus either. Since then, the topic has never been brought up again.

Geographically, the WHO divides the world into six regions – each has its own governing body and a committee with regard to health affairs on the regional level. The degree of development of LGBT health issues varies across different regions. The Pan American Health Organisation is the most active one; it has recognised sexual orientation as a social determinant of health (Res. CD50.R8). It adopted another resolution (CD52.R6) addressing the causes of LGBT health disparities in October 2013 after the discussion in the EB was suspended. In the Regional Committee for Europe, it was discussed in the context of the Health 2020 policy framework. LGBT populations are referenced only in relation to HIV/AIDS response and prevention by the Regional Committees for the Western Pacific and for South-East Asia. In the Regional Committees for the Eastern Mediterranean and for Africa, nothing is mentioned at all.

At the debate between members of the Executive Board in 2013, the reasons for removing the agenda item included:

  1. a lack of capacity for the WHO to address politically sensitive human rights issues, which had been addressed by the UN human rights bodies;
  2. a lack of consensus between states on what health issues should be prioritised;
  3. a lack of a universally agreed definition of affected communities, ‘LGBT people’ in this case; and,
  4. a lack of evidence regarding the existence of the health inequities in question.

In those meetings, member states employed many human rights notions, but eventually they decided that the WHO should step away from other human rights concerns, as if the right-to-health issues could be addressed in isolation. This suggests that these states were not committed to the so-called human rights-based approach to global health governance, although they had spoken a great deal in the language of human rights.

Can no-evidence say anything?

The WHO member states involved in the debate in the end made an unusual decision, which was to ‘do nothing’ about the health disparities experienced by SGMs. That decision is particularly relevant to the power of official and expert discourses regarding knowledge production in health research. That is, the inaction was taken and justified based on the fact that the epidemiological science had not proven the existence of SGM health inequities yet.

Among those ‘lacks’ mentioned above, I will focus on the assertion of lacking evidence. In this regard, in terms of theoretical and methodological approaches, the sociological interrogations concerning ‘absence’ and ‘ignorance’ would be useful; they have critically identified the symbolic meanings of non-existence and non-knowledge as well as the socio-political organising and functioning of such. Deconstructing the notion that ‘we don’t have enough proof’ enables us to argue that what ‘no evidence’ shows is no less than what evidence does.

On the one hand, it is that ‘queer trouble’ makes a comprehensive survey concerning the health of SGMs almost impossible. Out of the different understandings regarding sexuality and gender between health and social scientists, it is very difficult to define SGM populations across societies. In short, there are too many ways of naming queer people due to their diverse locationalities considering the dominant culture of the place where they live. This conceptual difficulty informs us that, on the one hand, the social determinants of health may be universal, but are context-sensitive as applied, and on the other, related studies are hardly achievable without generalising the population under research. Even the researchers themselves would have to acknowledge this partiality in the research process.

It is true that SGM health is far from simply a scientific question, especially if we consider the situations in which SGM members are afraid to see a doctor and face persecution, let alone voluntarily accepting to be studied. This has exposed the limits of evidence-based public health when the target populations are hard to define, and even harder to reach in many societies. That is to say, the nexus between the lack of evidence and the lack of definition of queer populations seems inextricable.

Yet, what counts as ‘evidence’?

Yet, it would also be irresponsible to simply blame the lack of evidence on ‘queer trouble’. The real problem in regard to the underrepresentation of queer communities and the misinterpretation of their health information should be uncovered. Here, I am arguing that, other than the troubling definition of queer people, the intended ignorance – due to non-recognition (omissive) and misrecognition (commissive) of SGM communities and hence non-production of knowledge concerning their health – plays a greater role in reinforcing the social and health injustices against them. That is to ask: What counts as evidence? Could it be that the lack of evidence manifests the evidence of health inequity? Namely, the socially constructed ignorance can be seen as the evidence of health injustice. Therefore, it is important to know how not-knowing functions.

In the absence of knowledge that meets professional standards, we shall consider the knowledge coming from local communities. The selection process of and resource allocation with regard to conducting health research may result in the invisibility of the non-recognised and the misrecognised. For example, a Bangladeshi activist stated at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s Asian Regional Conference (ILGA-Asia) of 2015: ‘Health issues of hijra are always related to social discrimination. We are often denied access to seeing a doctor.’ A Thai transman activist expressed concerns about health professionals’ insensitivity: ‘Most trans health information is accessible only to transwomen…doctors just don’t know what to do with us and our health issues’.[3]

These narratives are rarely documented and used as evidence for health inequity, but they call on us to rethink the absence of evidence in certain places, as reported by the Bangladeshi and Thai governments, for instance. In this light, the tolerance of no-evidence itself could be a form of state-sponsored health inequity. Where there is ‘evidence’, it can be misrepresented in a biased manner. Indeed, the powerless position of queer people is both the cause and the result of the misinterpretation of health data – mainly by governments and mass media.

Local queer activists are ambivalent about the efforts towards making social injustices against SGMs a health issue, while they have suffered a lot from being over-medicalised subjects. This ambivalence is quite salient in Asian societies. At the 2015 ILGA-Asia Conference, an activist from the Philippines stated that: ‘The news about our poor lives attracts audiences for sensational stories’, as if ‘we are ill for being sexually active and self-indulgent’. And, according to a Nepalese activist: ‘The information can be quoted out of context’, when people only read that ‘international studies say we are less healthy’.

Conclusion: Health is political!

After all, do states really presume that there will be ‘enough-ness’ of evidence? Can health inequity research be capable of establishing the causation between any social determinant and one’s health outcome? If not, what do national delegates mean? Observing the debates in the WHO and elsewhere, what certain national governments have been doing is to avoid – by not making anything happen – a potential formulation of future international pressure through global health policymaking and its normative discourse.

Through deconstructing the discourse of a ‘lack of evidence’, we can thus identify the socio-political functions of ignorance and ignoring. That is, they did nothing, not because they didn’t understand and care. Quite on the contrary, it was because they cared and knew too well that health is always political, and yet, it is not just the politics concerning knowledge production and media representation; it is also international politics.


[1] In my research, I tend to use the term ‘SGM’ to encompass not only people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) but also those whose sexual practices or gender expressions are considered bad/immoral/abnormal in varied historical and sociocultural contexts. So, SGM and LGBT should not be used interchangeably.

[2] For more information, see the meeting records of the 139th session of EB in 2016, pp. 3-5.

[3] These are my notes taken at the meetings of the sixth ILGA-Asia Regional Conference, held on 28-30 October 2015 in Taipei.

Manifestos of nature – what the parties are saying about biodiversity


In this post Dr Joanna Miller Smallwood (ESRC/SENSS Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Sussex Law School) discusses how the Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green manifestos for the upcoming general election propose to tackle issues around biodiversity through law and policy.

We are living in a period of mass extinction more catastrophic than any other including the mass extinction period of the dinosaurs. Recent global reports show that 1 in 10 animals and plants will be extinct by 2050, and the loss of species is faster than ever. In the UK, the State of the Nature report 2019 finds that terrestrial and freshwater species have declined by 13% since 1970. This loss is not a natural phenomenon, it is human led. Society is waking up to this fundamental issue, with the help of key media personalities such as David Attenborough and rising social movements such as Extinction Rebellion. All party leaders apart from Boris Johnson took part in a recent televised debate on the approaches of their parties to tackle climate change. This televised debate also touched upon biodiversity related issues, which is promising as biodiversity often plays the underdog to debates on climate change, despite that fact that biodiversity loss is of at least equal importance in terms of planetary health. The loss of biodiversity (alongside climate change) should be at the top of any party political manifesto, these environmental issues really do trump Brexit and other societal concerns, for the simple fact that if our planetary ecosystems fail then none of the other issues will matter anyway as we may in fact cause our own extinction.

The good news is that more than ever, party manifestos for the 2019 general election are addressing key environmental issues. Not only are approaches outlined, but laws and policies are being put forward and funding promised for biodiversity in the manifestos themselves:

  • The Conservatives pledge £640 million for a new nature and climate fund;
  • Labour promise to launch a £250 billion green transformation fund;
  • the Liberal Democrats pledge to increase government expenditure to 5% of the total government expenditure within 5 years;
  • and the Greens undertake to reform the tax system to fund a green revolution.

Finally, environmental issues in the UK are receiving more focused political attention. This blogpost critically reviews the different approaches taken by the parties in relation to tree planting, nature conservation, biodiversity in agriculture, and  it highlights some transformational ideas as well as those which are fundamentally flawed.


Much has been made of party pledges to plant trees:

  • In their manifesto, the Greens promise planting 700 million trees by 2030 (an average of 70 million a year).
  • The Conservatives promise to raise the number of trees planted to 30 million trees a year by 2024 and the creation of a Great Northumberland forest of 75,000 acres by the end of next parliament.
  • Labour commits to an unquantified ‘ambitious programme’ of tree planting and an NHS forest of 1 million trees in their manifesto and Corbyn recently made an announcement committing Labour to plant two billion by 2040 (100 million a year).
  • The Liberal Democrats promise in their manifesto to raise the number of trees planted to 60 million trees a year by 2024.

If planting trees were the answer to biodiversity loss then it would be relatively clear who has the strongest party manifesto with the ranking from top to bottom being Labour, Greens, Liberal Democrats then Conservatives.

However, the focus on tree planting is problematic for two reasons:

  1. Firstly the amount of trees suggested is highly ambitious and currently much lower targets are left unmet, recent figures show tree planting is 71% short of government targets in the UK.
    This raises doubts whether the party commitments to ever increasing numbers of trees is realistic without systematic change to support these ambitious programmes.
  2. Secondly, despite the huge benefits of tree planting both as carbon sinks and for creating forest ecosystems, planting trees alone will not fully address the biodiversity crisis we are experiencing.
    This is largely because forests are only one of many important types of ecosystem and only focusing on planting trees does not address the main drivers of biodiversity loss. According to the State of the Nature 2019 report, in the UK, the main drivers of biodiversity loss are agricultural management, climate change, hydrological change, urbanisation, pollution, woodland management and invasive non-native species. The causes of biodiversity loss are therefore multiple and complex, and they demand more than tree planting alone and any tree planting that does take place has to be carefully thought out.


The most obvious solution that springs to mind when considering biodiversity loss is its antithesis, nature conservation. How can nature be conserved, restored and enhanced?

Each party have made broad promises in their manifestos in relation to nature conservation. The Greens’ ‘Green New Deal’ pledges to make space for nature, create policies to restore habitats in urban, suburban and countryside environments and uphold access to diverse nature as a human right. Recognising access to a healthy biodiverse environment as a fundamental human right is a ground-breaking but incredibly sensible rights-based approach to secure more protection to biodiversity. It opens numerous avenues to provide much greater legal protection for biodiversity and nature through the provision of potential legal actions for infringements of this right.

The Greens also aim to create a tryptic of environmental legislation: an Ecocide act (providing for crimes against the natural environment), a Clean Air Act (with ambitious binding emissions targets) and a Sustainable Economy Act (with binding targets for soil quality and biodiversity).

It is envisaged that these legal environmental obligations will be monitored and enforced through a new Environmental Protection Commission. Providing such a means of accountability is vital for the success of the laws introduced. Unsurprisingly the Greens have a strong and comprehensive well thought out environmental programme which addresses biodiversity loss. Key to the Green approach is not only the inclusion of a human right to nature and environmental laws but also a means to enforce compliance. In the UK, conservation legislation is often difficult to enforce due to vague provisions and insufficient funding of regulatory bodies to monitor compliance and to bring non-compliance cases to court. Equally important to the creation of clear environmental laws are well funded independent bodies, that can enforce legal provisions and, in this way, bring real meaning to them.

Labour heralds a ‘green industrial revolution’ not only by creating a million green jobs but by restoring nature. Labour promises a Plan for Nature that sets concrete legally binding targets to drive restoration of species and habitats, this is good news.

Furthermore, they promise to fully fund the Environment Agency which is the existing body that regulates environmental issues from flooding to air quality as well as bringing prosecutions. Labour pledge to increase funding to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) agencies by a combined annual total of £70m with a significant amount going to the Environment Agency (EA) and over half to Natural England (NE) to expand their role in monitoring and evaluation of the natural environment. These expanded roles for the EA and NE are key to incentivise businesses and other stakeholders to change behaviours so that the new species and habitat restoration targets can be met.

Labour also pledges to create an environmental tribunal to ensure that administrative decisions are consistent with environmental and nature-recovery obligations, this is a real positive step forward and would hold government departments accountable for their impact on nature. Labour provide a robust approach to nature conservation; their approach moves beyond solely laws and policies outlining binding obligations, but addresses means of monitoring and enforcement and therefore accountability to nature within decision making of the sectors that drive biodiversity loss as well as across government.

The Conservatives promote the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018 (the Environment Bill) which is currently awaiting parliamentary approval depending on the outcome of the election. It has received a mixed response with positive feedback in that it increases ambition in relation to nature recovery, it also adopts a principle based approach where principles such as the precautionary principle will be applied by Ministers of the Crown in making, developing and revising their policies. It is yet not clear exactly how this principle based approach will be applied and work in practice.

The Environment Bill has also been criticised as it does not include definite binding targets or a statutory duty on ministers to create such targets. Without any backbone to the law that places a clear duty on ministers, it could be a token nod to the creation of targets and a principle-based approach and this is very concerning.

The Conservatives propose to set up an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), an independent body to provide scrutiny and advice on environmental law as well as having enforcement functions which is positive and the OEP would promote the new provisions within the Environment Bill. there are concerns the body is too closely linked to DEFRA in terms of funding and accountability which raises some concern about its independence.  Further, if the provisions laid out in the Environment Bill are too vague then enforcement of them will be difficult in practice.

The Liberal Democrats promise a Nature Act to set legally binding near term and long-term targets for improving water, air, soil and biodiversity and guaranteeing an Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). They promise the independence of the OEP and powers and funding to enforce compliance.

They also provide for structural changes within government including establishing a Department for Climate Change and Natural Resources. As well as the appointment of a cabinet-level Chief Secretary for Sustainability in the Treasury – this is a promising suggestion as it begins to promote the ‘mainstreaming’ of environmental issues across government departments which is key to addressing the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposals for nature also provide a dedicated department for natural resources. Whilst a step forward, more important than dealing with ‘nature’ as an isolated issues is the mainstreaming of biodiversity across sectors, which is promoted at the global level by the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the main global treaty on biodiversity. It is a fundamental approach that has been agreed by the CBDs 196 Member Stated and is a key approach that must be adopted by countries to avert the biodiversity crisis.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposal requires every government agency to account for its contribution towards meeting climate targets which is good – even better would be an extension of this to biodiversity targets although this is not in the current remit of the manifesto. Ensuring government departments such as agriculture, trade and industry address biodiversity begins to get to the heart of mainstreaming and accounting for their role in biodiversity loss.

The party manifestos all to a greater or lesser degree account for nature conservation within their manifestos. This is really positive and moves nature further up political agendas. However, nature conservation alone is not enough to tackle the biodiversity crisis. Political parties need to look further than solely nature conservation laws to effectively conserve, restore and enhance biodiversity. Biodiversity also needs to be mainstreamed across society and accounted for in policies and practices in relation to those sectors who drive biodiversity loss, the main one in the UK being agriculture. Legally binding targets will go some way to change behaviour, but it is key that nature conservation is also at the heart of decisions made by all sectors and incorporated into the relevant laws and policies. This is the greatest challenge and where efforts are most needed for change.


A recent report highlighted that the main driver of biodiversity loss in the UK is agricultural management. In the last 50 years the UK’s biodiversity has been destroyed through the intensification of agriculture. A recent DEFRA report on the abundance of birds on farms shows a 56% decline in the number of farmland birds nationally since 1970. Considering that 71% of UK land area is agricultural land this statistic is shocking. The way land is farmed in Britain is key for the restoration and enhancement of biodiversity and farming systems are needed that protect biodiversity rather than destroy it.

In their manifesto the Greens pledge to transform food and farming systems to improve human and environmental health by shifting away from intensive towards smaller-scale farming. The Green plan is for a ten-year transition to agro-ecological farming which includes the transfer of subsidies to farming methods and food systems that create jobs and restore ecosystem health. They promise to encourage the expansion and replanting of most hedgerows lost in the last 50 years through new subsidies. They will create laws to give farmers greater security of tenure to encourage investment in improvements to the land and to reduce pesticide and fungicide use by at least 50% by 2022, phase out all non-agricultural uses of pesticides, and immediately ban the most harmful substances.

They also talk of ‘encouraging’ the ‘rewilding’ of spaces through the planning system. They pledge to establish a Food and Agriculture Research Council to research sustainable and health-promoting farming, the reduction of methane emissions and soil quality. Their comprehensive approach tackles multiple practices which drive biodiversity loss and puts in place a system of farming that moves towards smaller scale farms, reduced pesticide use and planting hedgerows and other rewilding activities. This holistic approach to farming is likely to play a very positive role in not only stopping the ongoing decline in biodiversity driven by agricultural practices but transforming practices to restore and enhance biodiversity. The Greens’ revised subsidy system is planned to fund such changes.

Labour states in its Plan for Nature that it will support farmers to adapt and improve agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gases and to change use of fertilisers and pesticides to benefit environment quality. They also pledge to consult to set appropriate targets for the reduced use of harmful pesticides and fungicides and adopt the precautionary principle in regulations. They will focus on supporting sustainable farming methods with less reliance on chemicals.

Labour pledge to maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but to repurpose them to support environmental land management and sustainable methods of food production. This talks to the elimination of subsidies and incentives which are harmful to biodiversity and promotion of positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The Labour manifesto has many strengths including setting targets on pesticide use, supporting sustainable farming as well as reforming the subsidy system. The manifesto and Plan for Nature, however, provide little detail as to how this will be achieved and do not extend to rewilding activities on farms.

The Conservatives promote a change to the role of farmers to act as stewards of the natural world and pledge to guarantee the annual budget of farmers in return for farming in a way that protects and enhances the natural environment and safeguarding high standards of animal welfare. Their vision is to lead the world in quality food, agriculture and land management – driven by science-led, evidence-based policy. However, no detail is given on how this vision will be achieved and no laws or policies are put forward to implement these changes. There are no commitments made in relation to reduction in pesticide use, rewilding of farms or providing greater security of tenure to farmers.

The Liberal Democrats in their manifesto propose to reduce basic agricultural subsidies to larger recipients and redeploy the savings to support the public goods that come from effective land management, including restoring nature and protecting the countryside. They also pledge to support farmers to protect and restore the natural environment alongside other critical roles such as in producing food. They do not make any commitments to reduction in the use of pesticides. Their commitment to the redirection of subsides and commitment of money to nature restoration are positive. However, lack of any detail of how this will be achieved is concerning.

The political parties all envisage major changes to the way land is farmed in the UK with a focus on the farmer’s role in safeguarding and enhancing biodiversity, which is hugely positive.

However, concrete plans in the form of laws and policies and governance structures which outline how this ambitious level of change will take place are completely absent in the Conservative manifesto and lacking detail in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The Greens provide the clearest plan of how biodiversity will be incorporated into a new agricultural system and promise laws to increase security of land tenure as well as pesticide reduction and bans, they aim to promote rewilding using the planning system and change subsidies to encourage the planting of hedgerows. Labour also have a comprehensive approach with the aim to set targets for pesticide use as well as the use subsides to promote environmental land management and sustainable farming.

Beyond nature conservation and agriculture

Nature conservation and the role of agriculture in protecting and enhancing biodiversity discussed in this blogpost are just two areas in which biodiversity needs to be addressed.

Other areas are also key to a comprehensive approach but cannot be covered here. Such areas include the importance of acknowledging the UK’s role in destruction of biodiversity overseas, either within British Overseas Territories or through trade deals. This is a crucial issue as most of the world’s biodiversity is held in the Global South and support and funding from the Global North are needed to protect vital biodiversity reserves.

Further, the role education can play in transforming societal ideologies are key to shaping a future society that respects biodiversity and the essential role it plays, and this will require great change in the way we all live and how society functions.

Things clearly must change, and political parties are beginning to recognise this. This gives some hope but is very much the tip of the iceberg, only when these commitments turn into concrete change through law and policy and strong systems of governance will the decimation we have caused to biodiversity begin to repair. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have produced comprehensive environmental assessments of the political parties manifestos and place the Greens and Labour as parties with the best score for environmental objectives with Liberal Democrats not far behind. They both agree that the Conservatives are very much at the bottom of the list.

Farming Through Brexit: How will leaving the EU affect farmers in and around the South Downs National Park?

photo of Helena Howe

Helena Howe

In this piece Dr Helena Howe (Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex) gives snapshot findings from a pilot study of how the UK leaving the EU will affect Sussex farmers. In addition to outlining findings, Helena sets out potential policy implications of the research, as well as next steps for the project.

Initial snapshot of findings from pilot study


In a way this project started in 2016, just after the vote to leave had been announced. I stood at the base of the Downs talking to a farmer who has worked hard to enhance the wildlife on the farm and is justly proud of his farmland bird populations. But his vision of the future was not a comfortable one. If food prices fell and financial support for farming reduced significantly, he feared being left with no choice but to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the farm; thereby squeezing out the wildlife. A well-designed and funded system of support for farmers and land managers could do much to address the flaws in the existing approaches, buffer uncertain markets and foster sustainable food production in the UK. But the risks of getting it wrong were evident.

Withdrawal from the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy is likely to have significant impacts on farmers in the UK. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is currently developing the new regulatory framework for land management, including the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to deliver ‘public payment for public goods’, although there is ongoing uncertainty due to the election and Brexit process.

This is the first stage of a study following a dozen farmers in and around the South Downs National Park until 2024. The aim is to contribute an in-depth, regional exploration of farmers’ lived experience of farming as we leave the EU and their responses to the emerging post-Brexit law and policy.

The research began with this pilot study of six farmers in the Eastern South Downs. The farms involved differ in terms of output, approach and tenure. Four of the farms were described as conventional or commercial, one is organic dairy and another has sustainability firmly integrated with food production. There is a mix of owner-occupiers and tenants.

The farmers were interviewed during summer 2019 and asked for their views on:

  1. the impact of Brexit on their farm business, including the changes to existing payment schemes;
  2. whether the potential changes to their markets and the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) were likely to alter the way they farm;
  3. features of the proposed ELMS and opportunities for participation in the process of development;
  4. any other issue they felt important.



1. Potential impact on the farm business

All the farmers felt uncertainty about the future. Several were extremely concerned about the financial viability of their farms post-Brexit given the lack of information on market conditions – particularly tariffs, food standards and distribution channels – as well as payment schemes. Most felt that without either higher food prices or substantial public good payments their farm business would be in a precarious financial position. One noted that their farms and other risked ‘going bankrupt wholesale’ (Farmer A). Most already relied on diversification to support the farm financially, although several questioned why the return on food production was so low as to make diversification necessary.

For most, removal of income support through Direct Payments and lack of detail around the new ELMS was a major concern. The majority felt that the loss of Direct Payments could be mitigated if payments for ‘public goods’ under the new ELMS were set at a suitably high level. However, most of the group acknowledged the problems with an area-based payment to landowners, particularly the impacts on land prices and rent. Several noted that the position was more challenging for tenant farmers than owner-occupied farms. Some also expressed concern for the new generation entering the sector.

Farming in this region was seen as a mixed blessing. Those who farmed in the South Downs National Park felt that this was a potential benefit under a system of payments for the provision of public goods. Several farmers were critical of the South Downs National Park Authority management of issues, particularly in relation to recreational access and planning.

2. Changes to farming focus and practice

For all but two of the farmers producing food was the priority. Two of the participants felt that food production was vital but more integrated with wider environmental and social goals. All the farmers were aware of the potential impact of their practices on the environment, both positive and negative. Several felt the degree of damage done by farming to the environment was mispresented.

The majority of participants appeared pragmatic about what they would produce and how they would manage their land and livestock in the future. As one farmer stated: ‘…if I need to change something because that’s where the money is, then that’s what I have to do’ (Farmer B). Decisions on what to produce and how they produced it would be largely determined by what was required by the market or any payment schemes. One spoke of willingness to produce wildlife if that was what became financially sensible. However, another was prepared to become more intensive if this was the only way to maintain the viability of the farm, against his personal preference. Another two felt they could accept a system in which conservation was integrated into food production but would not prioritise public goods over food.

The other two were less pragmatic. They felt that their commitment to broader principles of sustainability meant that they would not be willing to intensify if it meant seriously compromising these principles.

A recurring theme was that the costs of producing food were not adequately recognised or reflected in the prices consumers expect to pay. Several farmers noted that income support through Direct Payments to farmers worked to subsidize cheaper food. The loss of these payments and low returns on food mean farmers are being asked to absorb this cost unfairly; in effect being asked to produce public goods – in the form of cheap food – without this being acknowledged or paid for. They felt this was a major issue for them and for the future of the sector.

3. Initial responses to ELMS

There was enormous frustration at how inflexible and prescriptive the existing agri-environment schemes (AES) have been in setting and enforcing objectives. Many felt that there was insufficient account taken of farmers’ knowledge of their farm and that enforcement was unduly harsh.

All felt that to be successful the new scheme must address these issues. Recommendations included:

  • a move to a more outcome- based system: ‘so what they need to do is to put it in our hands and say … “you deliver this and we want to see results”’ (Farmer E);
  • greater flexibility to enable farmers to try different approaches without being penalised;
  • regional implementation and support for ‘sensible’, knowledgeable, local advisors to help co-design a plan for the farm and to monitor achievement.

For one famer the scheme was simply flawed because it focuses on environmental goods and ignores food production.

Four of the six farmers are part of the same farming cluster. Some found the experience useful for peer learning and social interaction but others seemed unsure as to their real value or purpose. The importance of having a good facilitator was mentioned by several participants. There was ambivalence about an enhanced role for clusters under the new ELMS system amongst this group. Some recognised that this could help to provide public goods at the landscape level but were concerned about how this could work in practice. Several farmers stated that everyone wants to do their own thing on their own farm and not be tied into a scheme with other farms.

All but one farmer felt that they had not been enabled to participate in the development of the new scheme sufficiently. Some felt that that their views had not been sought, save via online consultation or by bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). But many also felt they had not been – or would not be – listened to. One farmer mentioned that the South Downs National Park Authority has played a role in feeding their views back to DEFRA. Several famers felt that clusters should be used to feed farmers’ views into policymaking.

4. Additional issues

Several participants highlighted the challenges facing younger entrants into farming, such as access to available land – on which to both farm and live – as well as comparatively low levels of pay. Some linked this to the wider issue of how to support thriving rural communities through planning and communications policies. Others mentioned the move towards plant-based diets. Some noted the vital role of cattle and sheep farming in maintaining the Downs landscape but others were trying out products for the growing vegan market.

One farmer emphasised the role of farming in mitigating environmental and social crises through innovative sustainable practices and opportunities to provide experiences that educate and enhance well-being. He wanted farmers, schools and policymakers to embrace and support this vision.



  • The funding and design of ELMS is potentially key to maintaining both viability of farms in the region and integration of environment and food production. The research will explore ELMS’ capacity to support farms in the South Downs to produce food alongside public goods.
  • If farmers are pragmatic and adaptable there are opportunities and risks for sustainability. Financial and other support could promote a resilient, sustainable farming sector but insufficient funding, excessive bureaucracy or delays could do the reverse. The challenge is to ensure that farmers adapt to changes in ways that promote ecological sustainability rather than being resilient by intensifying their food production. The study will help understand what farmers feel is needed to enable sustainable adaptations in farming practice.
  • Changes in the delivery of advice, monitoring and enforcement are likely to be key to helping farmers adapt to more sustainable practices and make the most of public funding under ELMS. A shift in the balance towards useful advice and away from inspections could significantly improve farmers’ experience of regulation and motivation to engage. The study will explore the role of advice, what makes valuable advisors and how they can enable farmers to make innovative and beneficial use of a more flexible and reward-based scheme.

    The experience of these farmers validates DEFRA’s aim to enhance flexibility and reward outcomes through ELMS. The research will help evaluate how well farmers feel the developing schemes meet these goals.

  • A role for clusters in the administration of ELMS appears challenging. The study will capture members’ experience of participation and suggestions for working at landscape scale.
  • Policymakers could increase efforts around effective participation in the design of ELMS. This study aims to monitor farmers’ perceptions of this and provide another path for feedback.



Discussion is underway with key policymakers and stakeholders to ensure the study is as useful as possible. Additional recruitment of participants in the project is also taking place.

Please contact: h.r.howe@sussex.ac.uk for further information or to get involved.

Reflecting on Research Collaboration: Before, During and After ‘Transformative Justice, Reparations and Transatlantic Slavery’

photo of Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans
School of Law, Politics and Sociology, University of Sussex, UK

David Wilkins
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK

[Reprinted with permission by the Social & Legal Studies Blog]

Recently, our co-authored article ‘Transformative Justice, Reparations and Transatlantic Slavery’ was published in the April 2019 print issue of Social & Legal Studies. The article had, however, been complete for some time and first appeared online in late 2017. Here we provide some reflections on how we came to write the article, what the article does and – especially – what we have been doing since its publication online and how this relates the themes and research underpinning the article.

What the article does and how we came to write it

The article began life in 2015 when both of us were postdoctoral fellows at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. David’s research up to that point had been focused on repairing the harms of transatlantic slavery and on mutual lessons from the histories of transatlantic slavery and South Africa. Matthew’s research had been focused on the roles of social movements, trade unions and nongovernmental organisations in networks working on socioeconomic rights-related issues, and on developing and applying the concept of transformative justice to the analysis of post-conflict and post-authoritarian contexts, focusing especially on post-apartheid South Africa. The article came out of bringing several of these areas of focus together.

In the article we consider lessons that debates surrounding transitional justice and transformative justice could offer to discussions regarding reparations for transatlantic slavery. We apply lessons from these debates to a consideration of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Ten-Point Plan for reparations, which, at the time we began working on the article, was relatively new and had begun to generate debate in scholarly and popular outlets. Offering a ‘supportive yet provocative critique’ of the CARICOM claim, we argue that that ‘reparations movements could strengthen their claims against wealthy and powerful actors by adopting a more radical, less limited approach to understanding, explaining and framing their claims’. In particular, we suggest that ‘[r]eparations movements need… to take account of the limitations and contradictions – as well as the potential – present in pursuing justice (in part at least) through reparations programmes’ and posit that ‘the specific injustice of transatlantic slavery requires acknowledgement and redress’, but that ‘this must be in addition to’, not ‘instead of, addressing current injustices which ultimately have complex roots (including but not limited to slavery)’.

To make our argument, the article draws on the literatures we had each been contending with in our research, and the debates in which we had been separately intervening. We draw upon Matthew’s work, which advances the argument first, that transformative justice ought to be considered separate to but overlapping with transitional justice Secondly, that it must take a longer-term view than transitional justice. And thirdly, that it must be oriented towards addressing structural violence and socioeconomic rights violations, rather than only the direct interpersonal violence and civil and political rights violations mainstream transitional justice has tended to be concerned with. We also draw upon David’s research highlighting the roles of history and truth telling in addressing the legacies of past injustices. This work led to David co-editing a special section of the South African Historical Journal on ‘Repairing the Legacies of Harm’ in 2017 and, in 2018, to publishing a chapter in Africa and its Diasporas: Rethinking Struggles for Recognition and Empowerment, edited by Behnaz A Mirzai and Bonny Ibhawoh.

Our article draws upon – and, we hope, contributes to – scholarship across a number of disciplines and fields: law, politics, history, human rights, memory studies (to name but a few). We hope that by bringing together these areas value has been added to debates about addressing historical wrongs, reparations, transitional justice and transformative justice. Moreover, we hope that the impact of our article, whether in our own ongoing work or in that of others, is not merely academic in the sense of being divorced from practical application.

What we did next

Since writing our co-authored article we have been working (separately) in areas which touch upon a number of the themes and issues we explored in the piece. Matthew’s research has continued to focus on human rights and related activism, and on theorising and applying transformative justice. In 2018 he published a monograph (Transformative Justice: Remedying Human Rights Violations Beyond Transition) focused on this, and in early 2019 he published a follow-up edited collection (Transitional and Transformative Justice: Critical and International Perspectives), to which David also contributed a chapter. David’s chapter builds upon several of the themes of our co-authored piece including:

  1. the importance of considering means of repairing historical wrongs beyond financial reparations;
  2. the possibility of lessons from transitional justice and transformative justice to be applied to injustices rooted in the deeper past than recent periods of conflict or authoritarianism;
  3. the importance of educational and cultural sites such as schools and museums for addressing injustices in society.

These themes are also present throughout David’s other recent works, such as his chapter in The Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking (2019).

Moreover, David has taken his focus upon the possibilities for schools to act as sites of repair for historical injustices further than the recommendations made in the concluding remarks of scholarly papers. Whilst he continues to publish research, since 2017 he has been working as a secondary school teacher in history and religious studies. His research and teaching practice interact not least in how he has taught the history of transatlantic slavery to Key Stage Three students (those aged between 11 and 14), including encouraging students to research historical individuals frequently overlooked in schools, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, and to question who gets to tell the stories about the past – and what impact this might have. What is more, having sought to conceptualise schools and museums as sites in which reparatory processes of historical truth telling could be facilitated through revised historical curricula, he has found it enlightening to spend time in schools and to become more informed as to the obstacles for schools to act in such a way. In particular, these obstacles include schools’ constrained funding (for new resources and the staff training which would, in many cases, be required) and the pressures that already exist for schools due to other existing demands on timetabling and curricula and exam directives.

What next?

Moving forward, we both have research plans which continue to address issues which we engage with in our co-authored article. David is working on a monograph which more fully sets out the research he has done on museums’ engagement with addressing the harmful histories and legacies of transatlantic slavery. He is also co-editing a volume exploring the nature of and changes in historical and contemporary slavery, and is increasingly interested in how the lessons of historical slavery and abolition can inform debates over contemporary forms of slavery and their eradication. Matthew is currently planning new research on the relationships between trade unions and human rights organisations as well as continuing research on transformative justice. Building on our interdisciplinary collaboration experience, he has also been developing work on interdisciplinarity and postdisciplinarity in rights and justice research.


This blog follows the publication of M. Evans and D. Wilkins, ‘Transformative Justice, Reparations and Transatlantic Slavery’ (2019) 28(2) Social & Legal Studies 137-157.  The paper is free-to-view for a limited time at the link below (correct at 03 June 2019)



Matthew Evans is a Teaching Fellow in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology, University of Sussex, UK and is a Visiting Researcher in the Department of Political Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He completed his PhD at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, UK.

David Wilkins is a secondary school teacher and historian in Southend, Essex, UK and is affiliated with the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK. He has a PhD in Law from the University of Hull and was Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Heritage Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand from 2014-2016.

Judicial Independence – the view from Israel

aamir fuchs
Amir Paz-Fuchs

In May of last year, the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, delivered a remarkable speech, declaring that “Israel’s judicial branch is under an unprecedented attack that threatens to irreparably damage its independence”. The main cause for this extraordinary claim was an initiative to curtail the courts’ power to strike down laws that have an adverse, and disproportionate, impact on human rights. Speaking after President Hayut, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared that it is Parliament’s duty to map the mutual relationship between the branches of government.

Not for the first time, the Israeli situation raises a number of interesting questions of general importance, for theoreticians and practitioners.

First, whilst I have zero sympathies with the politics of the Justice Minister, is she wrong to maintain that it is Parliament’s duty to map the relationship between the branches of government? After all, the nature of this relationship is the ultimate political question, in the true, unadulterated sense of the word. These are the questions that troubled Aristotle, Montesquieu and Madison. Why shouldn’t they be the subject of open debate within the most political of branches? Of course, the answer is that this very branch has skin in the game. How can it decide the extent of its own power, vis-à-vis other branches, in a manner that is intellectually honest? That is a fair objection, but it is not the one advanced by judges and their supporters. Indeed, every judiciary in the world owes at least some of its power to Parliament. Parliamentary acts tend to establish the courts, regulate their jurisdiction and determine the terms and conditions of the employment of the judges. So the argument is, to be precise, that a change to the status-quo, which changes the balance of power in a manner that is detrimental to the courts, is inherently threatening to judicial independence. But this is not only misguided. In being misguided, it also serves opponents of the courts with ammunition.

When the British courts were granted power, under the HRA 1998, to declare a law as incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights, this did not increase their independence, but did give them powers that they didn’t have in the past. In contrast, the Israeli courts currently have far more powers than their British counterparts. So much so, in fact, that the most ‘extreme’ version of the current proposals debated, so extreme that it is not even considered seriously, is to adopt the British model, and allow the courts only to declare the unconstitutionality of a law. This proposal is perceived as a death knell to judicial independence. But does that mean that British courts do not enjoy judicial independence? That obviously is not the case. Similarly, if Israeli courts were to lose their existing powers to strike down laws, they would not lose judicial independence, but rather lose some judicial power.

Viewing it otherwise conflates two important, but separately important, issues.

The danger of conflation is evident, somewhat paradoxically, in President Hayut’s rebuke of the recent initiatives. In responding to the claim that the court is too powerful, she indicated that since 1992, the American Supreme Court voided 50 federal laws, while the Israeli court reached the same decision only on 18 occasions, making it one of the least ‘activist’ courts in the world. To paraphrase the President’s argument, perhaps unfairly, she is saying: we’re playing nice, so why are you picking on us? Even more unfairly, one may even find a normative element in her argument: if we promise to continue to ‘respect’ the decisions made by other branches of government, will you preserve our ‘judicial independence’? This is a dangerous path to follow. It is also somewhat paradoxical: for if the court has voided only 18 laws in 27 years, five of which involved two issues which reached the court on different occasions, why is it so important to maintain that power and, moreover, to leverage the threat to judicial independence in the process?

The reason that this is a dangerous path to follow is because judicial independence isimportant, and is particularly important in a country like Israel. There is a reason that this initiative has reached its current height (or depth) following Supreme Court decisions to strike down laws, on three separate occasions, that allowed the administrative detention of asylum seekers (‘infiltrators’, in Israeli government parlance) for three years, in the original version, and up to one year, in the watered down version.

As is the case elsewhere, there are few constituencies with less political backing than asylum seekers and refugees. Therefore, targeting the court for protecting their interests carries, relatively, few political risks. Thus, it may be unsurprising that, following these decisions, a coalition of nationalist forces started to develop, to limit the court’s ability to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers. Realising that such a targeted approach may be politically feasible but legally difficult, this coalition broadened its ambition by introducing, as recently as November 2018, an amendment to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, limiting the courts’ ability to hold a law as unconstitutional, through a variety of ‘override clause’ versions. In addition, they managed to make the appointment process of judges to the Supreme Court a highly political affair, by reducing the power of judges in the committee and by forcing through the appointment of a first, and recently – a second, judge who live in a settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

These factions, who are advocating reform, care very little about high minded matters of separation of powers. They are not bothered, and are probably not aware, of the cases that concern property rights, social security or taxation in which the court has struck down primary legislation. They want to send the court a very low-minded political message: if you want to preserve your powers, you need to align by our nationalist agenda. In a recent visit to Israel, Justice Rosalie Abella Silberman, of the Canadian Supreme Court, addressed this very issue, and hit the nail on the head, saying that:

Independent judges who are not politically compliant are not anti-democratic, they are doing their job; those critics, on the other hand, who think patriotism means doing only what politicians want, are the biggest threat to Israel’s values, because they misconceive democracy as majoritarian rule.

Indeed. This is the issue. The powers of the court are numerous. Its administrative reach, which includes an overview of home office regulations, security measures, health and education guidances and a variety of government dictates, are far more important and effective in Israel’s daily struggle to maintain what is left of a core of democratic and constitutional values. True judicial independence, in other words, lies in the freedom to uphold the rule of law against forces that are growing in power, from one generation to the next. Forces that wish to obliterate minority rights and would regard the tyranny of the majority as a constitutional value.

A country that is steeped in an ongoing national and ethnic conflict since its existence, and for over 50 years – in prolonged occupation – has an uphill battle to uphold and maintain respect for human rights, particularly for Palestinian citizens and non-citizens, but also for others. Those constituencies depend on judicial independence to stand guard against calls that seek to portray them as ‘power grabbing’, ‘authoritarian’ and, indeed, enemies of the people.

If the court is dragged into the political theatre, forced to fight for its own limited power to strike down laws by leveraging the argument of judicial independence, it will lose the battle for its powers; but more importantly, it will lose the war for its own independence.

Brexit and the Voice of the People: But Which People?

Moira Dustin, Nuno Ferreira and Susan Millns

A thousand different lenses

Brexit has been debated and unpicked to exhaustion. Writing in February 2019, Brexit is beginning to feel like a bad soap opera whose scriptwriter has run out of ideas. The plot is going round in circles.

And yet, most discussions revert one way or another to sovereignty, migration and economy – all with clear nationalistic and imperialistic overtones. Debates about people or ‘the people’ seem to be at the core of these discussion, especially when it comes to migration. All such debates are implicitly or explicitly about ‘us’ and ‘them’. This binary(ies) need challenging. What is also needed is a recognition of the multiple further intersections and subgroups within these binaries of groups of people.

The term ‘people’ disguises radically different groups of individuals and their distinct interests, voices and degrees of power and security. There are people with enough legal security to remain in the UK should they wish to. There are others without, who may have to leave if/when Brexit materialises. There are those who may have to return to the UK despite preferring to reside elsewhere in the EU.

The simple step of starting to interrogate and break down the broad category of ‘people’ is greatly revealing. Undeniably, Brexit will impact very differently on different people, depending on characteristics such as socio-economic context, educational background, age, ethnicity, etc. An intersectional approach also highlights the key role gender and sexuality play in the impact of Brexit on a person.

To explore that possible impact, we have co-edited a collection – Gender and Queer Perspectives on Brexit – whose contributions unpack the various ways in which gender and sexuality may determine how Brexit will affect the lives of people in the UK and elsewhere in the Europe Union (and beyond).


Why a gender and queer perspective?

As we highlight in the introduction to this edited collection, women and gender and sexual minorities have been marginalised throughout history, including in political debates. With that starting point, we were keen to explore how Brexit can change the equality, human rights and social justice landscape in the UK from gender and queer viewpoints. Our collection’s conclusion – unsurprisingly – was that overall Brexit is very likely to impact negatively upon women and gender and sexual minorities in a variety of ways.

Even before the Brexit referendum took place, it was already clear that this was a strongly gendered process. As Achilleos-Sarll and Martill make clear, the campaign for Britain to leave the EU and the subsequent Brexit process have been dominated by discourses of toxic masculinity, linked to language associated with deal-making and militarism, and spearheaded by elite, white males.

This has had four potential (gendered) consequences: setting the UK on the path towards a ‘harder’ Brexit; the consolidation of free-market norms and retrenchment of social policies; the diversion of attention from domestic to international distributional consequences; and the persistent under-representation of women and minority groups in politics.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it also became clear that black and minority ethnic (BME) women were going to be particularly targeted by racist and Islamophobic attacks and assaults, as Gill and Ahmed discuss. This underlines the complex implications of Brexit from the perspective of gender, race, religion and class relations.

This complexity is compounded by the potential implications of Brexit on work-life balance. This is an area in which the EU has not escaped criticism, but where it has also been instrumental in shaping an agenda and creating a policy and normative framework that has enhanced the position of carers and counterbalanced the UK’s neoliberal approach. Caracciolo di Torella argues not only that leaving the EU is likely to jeopardise any achievements in this area in the UK, but that the consequences of Brexit will also be felt by the EU, thus there will be no ‘winners’.

Yet another field of gendered impact of Brexit relates to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), specifically the health, healthcare and social care available to people with disabilities and illnesses. In this regard, Dyi Huijg situates Brexit in a context of hostility against both disabled people and migrants, and points to the role that health management plays in migration control and the gender dimension of the roles of migrant carer and patients.

Also in relation to cross-border family law one can see the gendered impact of Brexit: Walkerconsiders from a gender perspective the effect that Brexit will have on the relevant procedural rules, affecting areas such as child abduction, divorce, maintenance, domestic violence and parental responsibility. She concludes that post-Brexit there will be gaps in the law, especially in terms of enforcement of judicial orders and that there is currently no solution in these areas.

The situation, as Solanke alerts, seems to be even more dire in relation to Black British children, who may have a primary carer – most commonly a woman – without EU citizenship, and thus classify as ‘Zambrano children’ and lose access to their full rights as British and Union citizens after Brexit.

The gendered impact of Brexit is not, however, limited to women. As Iusmen argues, male unaccompanied minors may be particularly affected by Brexit, in the light of the risk that the UK will reduce children’s rights protections after leaving the EU.

Also in the field of asylum, Querton considers that leaving the EU is unlikely to immediately and significantly have an impact on decision-making in gender-related asylum claims. However, it will entail the loss of a legal framework underpinned by fundamental rights and effective remedies and may contribute to a(n even more) hostile environment towards women claiming asylum.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and other (LGBTIQ+) individuals are also very likely to suffer in specific ways as a consequence of Brexit. Danisi, Dustin and Ferreira argue that Brexit will affect SOGI minorities on a range of levels, including likely serious effects in terms of human rights and equality policy, ‘soft law’ instruments, socio-cultural environment, economic resources, regional variations within the UK and civil society vibrancy. Alertness will be required to legal and policy developments that may detrimentally affect SOGI minorities: on the one hand, in the UK, when the EU will stop working as an external ‘standards setting’ actor; on the other hand, in the EU, when the UK will stop supporting the advancement of the EU’s equality agenda.

Dunne also acknowledges how the EU – both symbolically and practically – has helped to re-shape queer intersections with law in this jurisdiction. Nonetheless, he argues that, for many reasons (political and legal), Brexit is unlikely to fundamentally alter existing rights and entitlements.

Devolution has played a considerable role in Brexit debates, and has its own gendered dimension. Weldon-Johns critically examines whether there is, or could be, a distinctly Scottish perspective in the context of work-family rights post-Brexit, particularly from a gender perspective. The conclusion is that the current legal frameworks do not enable Scotland to retain continuity with EU law.

Still in relation to Scotland, Ritch explores how the independence referendum saw the establishment of new women’s organisations and networks to counteract a seeming marginalisation of women’s concerns in the official campaigns, whilst the European referendum saw limited national public engagement by women’s and other civil society organisations, and lacked a particular gender focus even in feminist spaces.

Yet, Scottish feminist policy organisations can continue to engage post-Brexit with pan-European feminist structures like the European Women’s Lobby, to campaign for relevant instruments such as the Istanbul Convention. In relation to Ireland, Galligan outlines the gendered constitutional and policy challenges of Brexit for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the UK-Ireland relationship. The upshot: Brexit necessarily destabilises the hard-won gains of the peace process and will have negative consequences for political and diplomatic relationships across and between the two jurisdictions, with an inevitable impact on women.

Clearly, the greatest impact of Brexit will be internal, but that cannot erase the impact that will be felt outside the UK as well. Barrow, for example, asserts that important policy developments in the EU’s defence and security policy from a gender perspective are at risk and concludes that, whether the UK and the EU negotiate a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, the integration of a gender perspective in defence and security policymaking may be undermined.

Stephenson and Fontana, instead, assess the gendered impacts of the possible trade agreements that the UK will enter into post-Brexit. They focus on the implications of trade agreements for employment, for consumption and for the provision of public services.

A key model referred to throughout the Brexit debates has been Norway. Holst, Skjeie and Teigen discuss the EU influences on four core gender equality policy themes (anti-discrimination law, work-life balance, gender mainstreaming, and gender quotas for corporate boards), concluding that Norway’s affiliation status has been relevant to policy development in this area in Norway. This debunks the idea that Norway’s status leaves it immune from EU’s influence.

Anything to look forward to?

The contributors to the Gender and Queer Perspectives on Brexit collection have offered careful and nuanced analyses to several gendered and queer dimensions of the Brexit debates. There are plenty of causes for pessimism, even if the UK has always, in many respects, had ‘one foot in and one foot out’ of the EU. What the debates on Brexit have brought to light in an acute manner is that women’s and LGBTIQ+ legal and policy conquests are precarious.

Yet, even where Brexit threatens the legal, economic or social gains of women and LGBTIQ+ people, there is a strong sense of resistance and positivity about the potential for addressing some of these risks if only they are identified and publicly recognised. Moreover, this collection makes it clear that leaving the EU will not only affect women and LGBTIQ+ in the UK, but should also be a priority for feminists and LGBTQI+ campaigners across Europe.

Outside the EU, the UK will no longer influence EU law and policy to any significant extent, and this may have negative outcomes for women and LGBTIQ+ people living around the EU, if the concerns of our contributors materialise.

There is still much more to do to fully understand the gender and queer dimensions of Brexit. In particular,regional, urban-rural and socio-economic differences across the UK need addressing through a gendered or queer lens. Only a more comprehensive intersectional approach can do justice to the lived experiences of all those affected by Brexit. In the process, it is essential to highlight all relevant threats. Only then will we be able to address them, not simply with the defensive demand for no regression on rights, but also the inclusive aspiration for an expanding, rather than narrowing, of horizons.

Moira Dustin, Nuno Ferreira and Susan Millns are respectively Research Fellow, Professor and Professor at Sussex Law School and Members of the Sussex European Institute at the University of Sussex, This piece was originally published on the UACES blog.

Brexit, sexual orientation and gender identity: what about the people?

Rainbow parade

Slowly, but surely, awareness is increasing about the possible impact of Brexit on individuals who identify, or are identified as, members of minorities based on their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI).

After explorations of this theme by Wintemute and by usCooperCooper et al., and the Trade Union Congress all alerted people to the potentially detrimental effect that Brexit may have on SOGI minorities.

It is critical to note that these SOGI minorities are far from monolithic, and any potential impact of Brexit for them will be different at a sub-group and even at an individual level.

Broad-brush, abstract policy analyses on this theme – as on any other theme – fail to capture the essentially individual nature of the relationship between SOGI minorities and Brexit, as one of the most divisive and hotly contested topics in British society for many decades.

In this short piece, we wish to delve into that individuality, bringing to the fore just some of the voices within the ‘SOGI minorities’ umbrella and listening to their concerns, fears and hopes in relation to Brexit – both specifically related to their identity and more generally about life after Brexit.

SOGI minority voices and views on Brexit

In an attempt to record and analyse how individuals experience and understand the Brexit process, a group of researchers from the University of Sussex have commissioned a Mass Observation Project entitled ‘The EU referendum – one year on’.

Amongst the respondents to this there were three men who identify themselves as gay, whom we here identify with pseudonyms: Andy, 59, a retired social care manager, writer and life model, who lives in Glasgow and is single; Michael, 75, a retired executive, who lives in London and is single; and Peter, 36, a teacher, who lives in Newcastle-under-Lyme and is single.

The thoughts shared by these three respondents on Brexit are worth exploring for the insights they offer into some of the factors that SOGI minority individuals might find important in the Brexit debate.

All these respondents voted Remain, and were considerably critical of the referendum itself (although it is known that not all members of SOGI minorities are against Brexit).

Whilst Michael did not see the need for the referendum to start with, and Peter asserted that the campaign ‘was full of lies’, Andy considered that ‘the EU referendum was one of the most idiotic and wasteful undertakings the UK government had undertaken in many a long year. I saw it as nothing more than a charter for racism, xenophobia and English right nationalism.’

Peter shared this position by stating that although it may be true that ‘Britain is a complex and capable nation which can, and perhaps should, be able to stand alone’, this ‘pride is more a veiled form of xenophobia in many people.’

Similarly, for these respondents the relevance of immigration in the Brexit debate was patent. Peter, for example, argued that ‘the presence of EU nationals in the UK is a good thing as we need young tax payers to fund our public services. People’s objections to migration are parochial and ill-informed.’

For Michael, in particular, this debate touched him personally, as he had had a same-sex Spanish partner who lived in the UK for many decades and eventually died in the UK.

In his words, ‘[h]ad [his partner] still been alive, he would have undoubtedly have been one of the many thousands of foreign nationals worried about their future life in this country.’

The consequences of Brexit for individual rights was also reflected in the concerns expressed by Andy: ‘Those who wanted [Brexit] to happen will be greatly peeved when they realise that the streets have not returned to a picture of the 1950s.’

‘When they realise they will have to pay more for goods and receive less wages, and as their rights are stripped away and trodden on by a so called respectable face of fascism, the[y] will whinge and moan and throw bricks. Because that’s how they believe you fix a society [,] by tearing it apart.’

Fears of violence on the streets if ‘Leavers’ become seriously frustrated with the outcome of the Brexit process may not materialise, but a good degree of apprehension from both ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ with regards to the success of the Brexit process – no matter how one may define it – is certainly warranted.

This apprehension is expressed by Peter, who says that ‘we will also be affected in the UK by an upsurge in hatred and prejudice’ and ‘the British working class, and even more sadly many middle class too, has allowed itself to be duped and trapped into a cycle of blame and hatred which really only serves to benefit politicians.’

This inevitably affects SOGI minorities in the mind of Peter, as he points out that ‘the EU referendum vote has encouraged a sleeping conservative and nationalist sentiment to be awoken and given a voice’.

This worries Peter ‘as a gay man who has benefited from the liberalisation of attitudes in society and the greater care with which people often now express themselves. I do believe words have a real power and if we allow people to say what they think without restraint we will see an increase in prejudice and ignorance which will be disadvantageous to people in minority groups.’

What about all other voices?

These respondents’ voices are just an illustration of how some members of SOGI minorities see Brexit. Certainly no firm conclusions can be taken from such a limited sample, which only includes gay men and leaves out so many other SOGI minorities, such as trans individuals who are remembered and celebrated today.

And yet, all SOGI minorities stand to lose in the Brexit game.

Peter recalls a colleague-cum-friend ‘railing about the “myth” of transgender and insisting there are only two genders (…) she made the points vocally. I think this confidence to express such non-PC views has been created to an extent by the sense that Britain is going back to some former state of being.’

SOGI minorities must rally quickly and effectively if such regression is not to materialise.

By Dr Carmelo Danisi, Dr Moira Dustin and Professor Nuno Ferreira, all at the University of Sussex and members of SOGICA

Testing the untestable: The CJEU’s decision in Case C-473/16, F v Bevándorlási és Állampolgársági Hivatal

Nuno Ferreira
Denise Venturi

Seeking refuge from homophobia

Let’s start with people. Because law should be about people, not (just) about abstract notions and fuzzy values. F – a Nigerian man – escaped Nigeria and reached Hungary, where he claimed international protection on the basis of his fear of persecution in his home country on grounds of his homosexuality. The authority dealing with F’s claim – the Hungarian Immigration and Asylum Office – decided that to determine whether F was effectively gay, they needed to commission a psychological report. The report in question was based on projective personality tests, and concluded that it was not possible to corroborate the Applicant’s self-declared sexual orientation. This was all the Hungarian authorities needed to feel entitled to deny the Applicant’s claim. It is important to outline from the start four crucial aspects of this case: the report did not deny that the applicant was gay, but simply stated that it was not possible to prove it (if such a proof were at all possible); the Hungarian authorities did not find any fundamental contradiction in the Applicant’s declarations; they did not consider the principle of the benefit of the doubt (as required by para. 203-204 of the UNHCR Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status); and there was no reference to the fact that same-sex activity between men is punishable in Nigeria with imprisonment of up to 14 years, or even the death penalty in the Northern Nigerian states that have adopted Sharia laws.

Against this background, F appealed against the negative decision of the Hungarian authorities, and the appeal court – the Administrative and Labour Court in Szeged – referred several questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The key point referred to the application of Article 4 of Council Directive 2004/83/EC (on the assessment of facts and circumstances, in the meantime replaced by Directive 2011/95/EU). The CJEU was asked whether this norm, in the light of Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU Charter) protecting human dignity, precludes forensic psychologists’ expert opinions based on projective personality tests from being used in asylum adjudication relating to LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) claimants, even when such tests do not enquire about the applicants’ sexual habits and do not entail a physical examination. Should that possibility be precluded, the referring Court also asked whether asylum authorities are prevented from examining by ‘expert methods’ the truthfulness of such international protection claims.

More specifically, the CJEU was called upon to assess the use of three types of projective drawing tests to assess sexuality, namely the ‘Draw-a-Person-in-the-Rain’ test, the Rorschach test and the Szondi test. These tests are used to obtain information from ‘patients’ where they struggle or prefer not to verbalise their feelings and experiences, in this way helping psychologists to assess personality, emotional well-being and mental health. As we have discussed in a previous blog post, even if these tools are still widely used by psychologists across the world, they are generally contentious and their use to assess an individual’s sexuality has been utterly ruled out by the scientific community. As a consequence, neither the relevant literature nor reputable professionals make any use of such tests for these purposes, and the use of psychiatric and psychological evidence is generally ruled out in sexuality-related asylum cases, for example, in the UK. The fact that the Hungarian Institute of Forensic Experts and Investigators produced a report stating that such tests did not prejudice human dignity and were appropriate – along with a ‘suitable exploration’ of the issues – to indicate an individual’s sexual orientation (see par. 25 of CJEU decision), is an indictment on the professional credibility of the individuals involved in producing the report. Yet, this was not the first time the CJEU has been confronted with highly dubious means of evidence in asylum cases involving sexuality.

Worrying signs

The CJEU has had three opportunities so far to deal with sexual orientation asylum claims. The first opportunity was in the joined cases C-199/12 to C-201/12, X, Y and Z v. Minister voor Immigratie en Asiel, which positively outlawed the ‘discretion requirement’, in other words, the possibility of returning asylum claimants to their countries of origin on the basis that they can be ‘discreet’ about their sexual orientation. On a more negative note, however, the Court also determined that for the ‘particular social group’ ground of the 1951 Refugee Convention to be used in such cases, sexual orientation asylum applicants need to fulfil two tests: membership of a group socially recognisable in the country of origin (social recognition test) and recognition of sexual identity as a characteristic so fundamental to a person’s identity that one should not have to renounce to it (fundamental characteristic test). The Court also determined that the criminalization of same-sex conduct does not in itself constitute an act of persecution. Both these points reflect a strict interpretation of EU law that runs against the UNHCR guidelines and commentators’ views.

In the second sexual orientation asylum case brought before the CJEU, the Court deals more explicitly with evidentiary standards: in Joined Cases C-148/13 to C-150/13, A, B and C v Staatssecretaris van Veiligheid en Justitie, 2 December 2014, the CJEU asserted that the sexual orientation declared by asylum applicants ‘constitute[s], having regard to the particular context in which the applications for asylum are made, merely the starting point in the process of assessment of the facts and circumstances’, thus endorsing authorities’ desire to subject asylum applicant’s self-declared sexual orientation to close scrutiny. Although some European Union (EU) Member States circumvent that matter by generally accepting asylum applicants self-declared sexuality, many others are eager – like Hungary in the F case – to closely scrutinise applicants’ self-declared sexual orientation, disbelieve it wherever possible and thus find an easy route to deny the asylum claim. In A, B and C, the Court appropriately refused the use of sexualised evidence or stereotyped assessments in sexual orientation asylum claims, thus precluding medical tests such as phallometric testing and explanation of sexual practices on the basis that the use of ‘evidence’ of this nature violates the dignity and privacy of the claimants (Articles 1 and 7 of the EU Charter). Yet, no positive guidance was offered as to what questions are appropriate in these circumstances. Moreover, questions based on stereotypes may still be asked, as part of overall balanced lines of questioning, thus still leaving much room for ambiguity and opening the door for inappropriate interviewing and decision-making.

The F case brought the matter of sexual orientation asylum claims back into the EU arena and offered the Court an opportunity to improve some of the shortcomings of its two previous decisions on this type of claim. Whether or not the Court would use this opportunity effectively was far from obvious. Indeed, despite recognising that a psychologist cannot determine an applicant’s sexual orientation based on personality tests, AG Wahl argued in his Opinion in this case that the tests in question should be admitted, provided that consent is obtained and the tests carried out in a way that is compatible with the rights to dignity and to respect for private and family life (Articles 1 and 7 of the EU Charter). AG Wahl effectively offered EU Member States an unreasonably wide margin of appreciation and an alarming scope to use ‘fake science’ to undermine asylum applicant’s claims, which deserved our outright criticism. Would the Court do any better?

Third time lucky indeed

In its judgment, the CJEU went further than the AG Wahl’s Opinion suggested and offered a much more cogent statement on the inappropriateness of using projective personality tests in sexual orientation asylum cases. The CJEU adhered to the position defended in A, B and C in terms of applicants’ statements being simply the starting point in the process of assessing the facts and circumstances of an international protection claim, which means that an applicant’s self-identification as LGBTI may be subject to scrutiny as well (para. 28-29). Yet, the Court seems to have tried to offer a bolder position than in its previous decisions.

First, the Court highlights that, according to Article 10(2) of Directive 2011/95/EU, actually possessing the characteristic that allows an applicant to be considered a member of a particular social group (PSG) for the purposes of the international protection claim is, in fact, immaterial, as what matters is that such a characteristic be attributed to that applicant by the actor of persecution (par. 31). What is interesting in this is the emphasis the Court places on this point, which had not been explicitly raised by the referring Court or in the AG’s Opinion and was not strictly relevant in this context. This is a welcome move by the Court, as it stressed that to establish a PSG the characteristic may simply be attributed to the person by the actor of persecution, and not necessarily be possessed by that person. This reading is in line with the spirit of the 1951 Convention and with UNHCR guidance, as provided in its Handbook (par. 66) and Guidelines No. 9 (para. 39 and 41). In the decision under comment, the Court referred to this point to argue that it is not always necessary to assess an applicant’s sexual orientation when dealing with sexual orientation cases – as it would be the case when the non-heterosexual orientation is only perceived/attributed (par. 32). Hence, at the beginning of its reasoning, the Court seems to be sending the message that tests aiming to assess an applicant’s sexual orientation are neither necessarily useful nor can they be used as a ‘magic wand’ to solve asylum cases.

Second, the Court accepts that Article 4(3) of Directive 2011/95/EU does not restrict the use of expert reports in the assessment of the facts and circumstances, but in line with the decision in A, B and C, it also places special emphasis on respect for Article 1 (human dignity), Article 7 (right to respect for private and family life) and Article 47 (right to an effective remedy) of the EU Charter(para. 34-35 and 43). As the Court specifies, this requires that national authorities adapt their methods of assessment to each category of application, including the type of Country of Origin Information (COI) it produces or procures (para. 37-38). Crucially, and contradicting explicitly the position taken by the Hungarian referring court, this also requires national authorities to take ultimate responsibility for the individual assessment of facts and circumstances, rather than (dis)placing that burden on experts (para. 40-42).

Third, the Court addressed head on the issue of consent. When commenting on the AG’s Opinion in this case, we had argued that the CJEU would have to explain how applicants’ genuine consent in such circumstances could be guaranteed, in the light of the inevitable pressure under which applicants must feel to undergo any tests deemed by national authorities as useful, even if not compulsory. We are very pleased to see that the Court has indeed questioned the genuinely free nature of consent from applicants under these circumstances (para. 52-53).

Fourth, in the light of the previous points, the Court considered that such tests constitute an unjustifiable and disproportionate interference with the Applicant’s right to respect for private life and are thus precluded by EU law. This is the case especially owing to the lack of reliability of such tests, the particularly serious interference with private life they entail and their non-essential nature (para. 54-65). It is interesting that to strengthen its argumentation – and similarly to the AG in his Opinion – the Court also relied on Principle 18 of the Yogyakarta Principles (protecting individuals from medical abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity) (par. 62), which reinforces the legitimacy and legal authority of this tool in sexual orientation related litigation. The CJEU thus points out that national authorities would do better to focus on ensuring that asylum case workers have the necessary training and skills for themselves to assess all personal circumstances pertaining to each case, including sexual orientation matters (para. 66-67).

Importantly, in the light of Article 4(5) of Directive 2011/95/EU, the Court highlights that even in the absence of evidence, an applicant’s statements regarding their sexuality may not need confirmation, especially if the applicant’s statement is consistent and plausible (the provision in question also making reference to the applicant’s ‘genuine effort to substantiate his application’, a ‘satisfactory explanation ha[ving] been given regarding any lack of other relevant elements’, the ‘applicant ha[ving] applied for international protection at the earliest possible time’, and ‘the general credibility of the applicant ha[ving] been established’) (par. 68). Although this still falls short of relying on applicants’ sexual self-identification and makes no explicit reference to the principle of the benefit of the doubt (para. 203-204 of the UNHCR Handbook and Guidelines), such emphasis on an applicant’s overall credibility reflects a genuine and positive effort from the CJEU to promote fair and lawful asylum decision-making procedures at the hands of national authorities.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

In a nutshell, the Court’s message is that it is acceptable for national authorities to commission expert reports in asylum cases related to sexual orientation, but the tests in question in the F case should be precluded. The overall tone of the decision is – we argue – more positive towards asylum seekers persecuted on grounds of their sexual orientation than past decisions of the CJEU have been. One could thus be tempted to think that the idiom ‘third time lucky’ applies here. We share that positive reading of this judgment. Yet, we would also like to point out that, once more, the Court did not offer any positive guidance as to how authorities should deal with evidentiary standards in this context and failed to recognise the importance of self-declared sexual orientation. At the same time, it must be noted that the CJEU preliminary rulings function through requests referred by domestic courts and the CJEU is thus bound by the questions asked by the referring court (although the Court has taken, in certain instances, a more proactive approach: see, e.g. Abdida). Therefore, one way to instigate greater clarity is for domestic courts to shape the questions they refer to the CJEU in a way that allows the Luxembourg judges to actually give positive guidance. On another note, the current CJEU jurisprudence on sexual orientation asylum cases and its related future jurisprudence have the effect of drawing clear lines between what does and what does not respect human rights. This is to say that, little by little, article by article of the EU Charter, the CJEU is indeed shaping the boundaries of sexual orientation asylum cases in the EU asylum acquis.

The best way forward to improve the way sexual orientation asylum claims are decided seems to entail the combination of a series of legislative amendments with a three-pronged non-legislative strategy: training, guidance and quality control. First, much better training needs to be offered to decision-makers who deal with sexual orientation asylum claims. Only appropriately qualified decision-makers who benefit from high-quality training in the field of gender and sexuality will be able to deconstruct and resist stereotyped and Euro/Western-centric views of how a credible asylum claimant should present their story involving persecution on grounds of sexual orientation, and what means of evidence are appropriate in such instances. As for the training, given that the topic is indeed complex and requires a high level of expertise, the focus should not be on its quantity and content (although regular, comprehensive and multidisciplinary training is undoubtedly useful), but rather, perhaps, on methodologies and means of training. In particular, we believe that training on sexual orientation and gender identity asylum claims would benefit from the input of refugee and LGBTQI+ groups more familiar with the issues in question. Moreover, the participation of LGBTQI+ refugees in training curricula could be envisaged at different stages, such as in designing such training courses. Listening to the voices of yesterday’s refugees can help us address more effectively the needs of today’s refugees. Second, comprehensive, effective and readily available guidance needs to be produced and disseminated, as to reach all domestic authorities dealing with sexual orientation cases. Key principles and positive guidance (but not prescriptive lists of questions) need to be established covering what aspects should be discussed, how such interviews should be conducted, and what means of evidence a decision-maker should use. Finally, a reliable and impartial quality control system needs to be put in place, to allow the quick identification of inappropriate evidentiary practices and introduction of improvements. In short, much work still needs to be carried out by domestic asylum authorities, that at an institutional and individual level, consciously or unconsciously, still resist improvements and perpetuate harmful practices. An arduous, but essential body of work lies ahead.

Nuno Ferreira is a Professor of Law at the University of Sussex and SOGICA’s project leader. Denise Venturi is a PhD Student in International Law and Human Rights at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and KU Leuven. The authors wish to thank the useful comments provided by Carmelo Danisi, Moira Dustin and Nina Held on previous drafts of this text. This post first appeared on the EDAL – European Database of Asylum Law blog