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The age-old ethical dilemma: human rights or a new auditorium?

Dr Pete Deveson BLOG Sq web duo


There’s been a masterclass in how not to manage a news crisis from our professional organisations this week.

A dossier of alleged groping, belittling remarks and unsolicited dick pics at the BMA has been making national headlines, and beleaguered head honchos at the doctors’ union must have been praying for something, anything, to take the spotlight off the sexism scandal.

You asked for a miracle, I bring you the RCGP…

As Brunei enforced new religious laws that punish adultery and gay sex with the death penalty by stoning, and the #BoycottBrunei campaign gathered support online, it has emerged that in 2013 the RCGP (new motto: Cum Sharia Caritas, apparently) accepted a ‘significant donation’ from the Sultan of Brunei to fund an eponymous auditorium, and in return proclaimed him a ‘Companion of the College’.

A petition (currently running at 3,500 signatures) has been started by Dr Hollie Rolland, who is rightfully enraged that it’s currently impossible for her to train as a GP in the UK without paying a college that lends its support by association to the ritualised state execution of gay people.

It’s not just their attitudes that need to move quickly into the 21st century

The college has yet to distance itself from the Sultan, perhaps because this might threaten the lucrative International Membership programme it runs in Brunei.

Now an argument could be made that the promotion of primary care is a universal good and should be a priority for the college, even in (or perhaps especially in) countries with questionable records on human rights. But it’s one thing to offer training to a nation’s GPs, and quite another to create a special new category of BFF with which to big up its leader. We’re talking about stoning people to death here. What’s next? The Fraser Rose Inaugural Prize for FGM?

In response to the growing furore, the RCGP initially released a holding statement which most people interpreted as ‘Look, stoning people to death is obviously bad mmkay, but what you have to understand is that it’s a very well-appointed auditorium’, then, with a sense of urgency that would make a Fangorn Entmoot look like Spud’s job interview, arranged an emergency meeting in three weeks’ time.

The original decision to honour the Sultan was made at a similar meeting in 2013, and the college has already declined to reverse its stance when challenged in 2014. It would be interesting to know how then-Treasurer-elect-and-now-Chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, pictured smiling with the Sultan on the college’s website, voted on those occasions.

We can only hope that by the time of the emergency trustees’ meeting, the petition will have garnered enough signatures to embarrass the college into a change of heart; however, having personally witnessed the infamous conference singalong, I fear this may be an organisation devoid of shame.

A pattern emerges here. Whether it’s the as-yet-unnamed priapists at the BMA left flatfooted by determined women collating testimonies via social media, or the RCGP floundering in the face of a Twitterstorm, our institutions appear hopelessly unprepared for the modern world.

It’s not just their attitudes that need to move quickly into the 21st century.

Dr Pete Deveson is a GP in Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @PeteDeveson

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the RCGP, has responded: ‘We would like to clarify the action that the College is taking in light of the latest developments in Brunei.

‘We are all shocked by the situation and have said publicly that we categorically condemn these actions.

‘We are urgently reviewing the situation at the highest levels. The challenge we have is that it takes time to get the necessary advice and to get the relevant people together to make decisions about all the options we have to consider. As the College is a registered charity, we also have to comply with charity law and governance.

‘I appreciate that this is frustrating, but I promise our members that I am doing all I can to hasten the process so that we reach firm conclusions as swiftly as is safe and responsible to do so. I will, of course, communicate the decisions to all our members as soon as we can.

‘We are a diverse and inclusive College and are very proud of our strong LGBT+ community of doctors and staff. We abhor any form of human rights abuse.’