In Turkey, the only way for a man to get out of military service is to prove he is ill, disabled or homosexual. The pink certificate is issued to those who can ‘prove’ their homosexuality. What ‘proof’ is required by the Turkish military seems to depend on those assessing the evidence. Officially requested ‘evidence’ includes photographs of the man dressed as a woman and of him engaging in sexual relations with other men. The photos have to show the relevant participant as the ‘passive’ partner to constitute definitive proof of his homosexuality.
It would not be greatly surprising to hear of such state-led treatment of homosexuals in a more conservative Middle Eastern country. Turkey, however, is an official candidate for European Union membership; something David Cameron voiced strong support for as recently as December. While most agree that the UK could and must do more to challenge the human rights practices of its allies in the Middle East, the crucial question is – how? If the UK decided to isolate itself from all countries that commit human rights abuses, we would have very little influence left in the world to achieve any meaningful progress on these issues. By maintaining trade links with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others, we have a voice at the table that can be used to make the case for greater equality. That does not mean they will listen, but the alternative is being shut out in the cold with no voice at all.
Furthermore, the many challenges posed by today’s problems in the Middle East cannot be addressed directly from Downing Street or the White House Situation Room. To tackle problems in the Middle East, the UK needs allies in that region. The fight against Islamic State (IS) is a clear example of this. Not only has IS committed appalling atrocities in Iraq and Syria, but its fighters returning to the UK pose a clear threat to our national security. The Saudi government has supported US-led strikes against IS, as has Jordan. Even Iran, a state with very different values to others in the region, has cooperated in tackling IS. Issues such as fighting extremism can have life and death implications, not just for those in the Middle East, but for people here in the UK too. A government would be irresponsible to refuse to work with regional partners when areas of common ground can be found.
There is some evidence, however, that the increasingly positive treatment of LGBT+ people in the UK and US is filtering through into diplomatic action. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton declared in a well known 2011 speech to the UN in Geneva that, “being gay is not a Western invention – it is a human reality”, and pledged to use foreign aid and diplomacy as means to try and encourage reform. In the UK, former Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for the UK to use its influence in other Commonwealth countries to push for change. The common thread in both Clinton and Hague’s arguments is that both rely on using the relationships the US and UK have with other states as a way of securing change. It is only through maintaining trade and diplomatic relations that the UK will have the chance to try and influence governments in the Middle East.
Diplomacy does not mean sacrificing fundamental principles and interests, but it does mean recognising that real, lasting change rarely comes about overnight. Lasting reform comes through messy compromises and imperfect solutions. Progress can never be guaranteed, but this approach has the best chance of leading to a more tolerant Middle East.
Will Thompson (Comment Contributor)