In April 2020, the IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) released a statement documenting how so-called ‘conversion therapy’ violates the global prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The IRCT will host a discussion on efforts to advance a global ban on conversion therapy during the celebration of WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen in August. Here we interview Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IE SOGI), and Matthew Hyndman, co-founder of the UK-based Ban Conversion Therapy campaign, a coalition of 19 LGBTQIA+ and faith communities and organisations, on how IFEG’s expertise is contributing to a growing global effort to speak out and legislate against conversion therapy.
Read IRCT Briefing: ‘Conversion Therapy’ here.
IFEG found 'conversion therapy' - rooted in the notion that an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity makes them abnormal - as profoundly discriminatory.
Rooted in the notion that an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity makes them ill or abnormal, conversion therapy takes a variety of forms and settings across different cultural, religious, and medical settings. Some approaches involve violent physical acts such as beatings, rape, forced nudity, force-feeding, starvation and electrocution whilst others are practiced under the guise of therapy or spiritual guidance. IFEG’s statement on conversion therapy found that such practices are carried out in a profoundly discriminatory context in which an individuals’ ability to give informed consent “may be impossible in most circumstances.”
“Saying no to conversion therapy means risking everyone you know and love,” Hyndman told IRCT. “You are either going to lose yourself through conversion therapy—by losing your life through suicide or simply losing your freedom to be yourself—or your whole support system, family and community. In someone’s most vulnerable moment in their life, how can that possibly be consensual?"
IFEG’s statement quickly came to serve as a key instrument in the advocacy toolkit of leading human rights practitioners working to ban conversion therapy.
“I knew that the IFEG would bring forensic credibility to the assessment of damage needed to carry out an analysis of torture typology,” said Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the IE SOGI, in an interview with IRCT. The IFEG statement and IRCT’s subsequent global research report were quoted extensively in Madrigal-Borloz own 2020 report on conversion therapy presented to the Human Rights Council in July 2020.
“Every week I am at a parliament somewhere around the world or in a meeting with government technicians trying to disentangle how to do best practice in relation to ending conversion therapy. The impact of the work of a series of organisations—the IFEG, Outright, ILGA, GATE and myself—on this matter is that the issue is now very firmly placed on the international human rights agenda in a way that it was not before.”
As the first set of expert medical and psychological research to declare conversion therapy a form of torture, the IFEG statement has contributed to a growing global movement towards banning the practice.
In July 2020, Ban Conversion Therapy published an open letter to the British government, expressly quoting from IFEG’s statement, to call for a full legislative ban on conversion therapy. The letter was signed by Elton John, Dua Lipa and Stephen Fry, alongside 83 other high-profile celebrities, politicians and religious leaders and successfully garnered massive public and media attention.
Soon after, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram announced bans on content promoting conversion therapy across each of their platforms and the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI+ Rights used the IRCT’s global data in an appeal to the European Commission to propose an EU-wide ban on conversion therapy.
Momentum towards a ban has continued into 2021. On 22 June the Canadian Parliament passed a bill criminalising conversion therapy “without the person’s consent” and any conversion therapy on children. A month earlier, Germany passed a law banning conversion therapy for minors, with Albania outlawing the practice entirely just days later.
In a press release on 29 June ahead of a meeting with the British Prime Minister, Amnesty International drew on IFEG’s work to denounce conversion therapy as torture, which has “no place in our society”.
The global spread of a ban on conversion therapy remains a work in progress, however: by the end of June 2021 only six countries had direct legislation curbing the practice (Germany, Canada, Malta, Albania, Brazil and Ecuador); three had regional or state bans (Spain, the US, and Australia); while five more five more (Argentina, Uruguay, Fiji, Nauru and Samoa) had indirect bans.
Some countries have committed to enacting a ban but have stalled at the consultation process.
The UK, for example, pledged in 2018 to ban what it called the “abhorrent practice” of conversion therapy, but it was not until May 2021 that the government announced a ban as part of their legislative agenda, only to with the promise of a consultation. One specific setback has been the opposition of certain religious groups, who wrote to the Prime Minister that a full ban could result in “criminalising Christians and common church activities”.
In response, campaigners like Hyndman say the forensic expertise behind the IFEG statement on the practice has greatly assisted efforts to lobby British politicians. IFEG noted that conversion therapy “can lead to avoidance behaviours, hypervigilance (e.g., difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep and traumatic nightmares), and other symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.”
Armed with this international expertise, Ban Conversion Therapy has been able to approach British politicians to explain why the testimonies of survivors of conversion therapy are not widely available in the public domain, and to urge them to bring those with lived experience of the practice and its lasting consequences to the forefront of the debate.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief also responded that “banning such discredited, ineffective, and unsafe practices that misguidedly try to change or suppress people’s sexual orientation and gender is not a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief under international law”.
A ban on conversion therapy, therefore, “sets a great precedent that will make sure that any young person who is being encouraged to participate in these activities knows that what is happening to them is illegal,” said Hyndman.
Having called for a global end to conversion therapy by 2030, the IE SOGI hopes that all States will have taken measures to address it within the next decade. He emphasised that, to be successful, efforts to prevent conversion therapy can and should take a variety of forms that respond to the interests of survivors.
“Ending conversion therapy will be the result of a multiplicity of actions that include public policy, legislation and the work of courts. There are examples of very effective action in each of these different fora,” said the UN expert, pointing to an upcoming Peruvian bill that seeks to end the practice through an innovative mix of administrative, labour and health-based regulations.
For more information
In a 2020 research report, IRCT identified State involvement in ‘conversion therapy’ in at least 68 countries. Read the complete report here.