A former Australian high court judge says Pacific Island nations are dragging the chain on LGBTI rights, as he urged them to forget "hobgoblin" fears of LGBTI people.
Michael Kirby, a former High Court Judge and prominent advocate for LGBTI rights, said on Thursday Pacific nations must re-evaluate their stance on gay rights and reform anti gay laws.
"When I was young in Australia the law also criminalised gay people, but eventually scientific evidence showed they don't choose their sexual orientation, and they can't change it, and therefore to criminalise it is like punishing them for their skin colour or race, or some other irrelevant consideration," he told ABC Radio on Thursday.
"That's why around the world the legislatures have been getting rid of these old relics of the past, and Pacific countries have been rather dragging the chain. And I'm not sure what can be done about it."
Sydney is playing host to a forum of about 40 people from around the Pacific to discuss advancing gay rights, organised by the Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation and funded by the U.S.. Embassy in Australia.
Speaking about meeting forum members on Thursday, Justice Kirby said change requires leadership.
"Even in so-called enlightened Australia we still have a way to go," he said.
"We can learn from other countries, and similarly the Pacific countries can also learn form Australia, New Zealand and other countries that this is just an old, hobgoblin fear from the past and it has to be got rid of. It's oppressive and it's against international human rights."
Laws vary across the Pacific.
For example, in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and in Papua New Guinea gay rights are limited. It is illegal for men to engage in same sex activity in these countries, but generally not women (however they may face discrimination.)
In May this year, Nauru passed the Crimes Act 2016, which effectively legalised same sex activity.
Justice Kirby opened the two-day forum on Wednesday night, where he talked about the patchwork of equality across the region, organisers said; and added that Australia has its own challenges with a survey showing 45 percent of Australians aged between 18 and 24 are reluctant to come out at work.
Benjamin Oh, co-convenor AAuRa - Asian Australian Rainbow Alliance, told the forum on Wednesday night there was an urgency to build bridges of understanding in the region.
"When LGBTI rights are undermined, human rights are undermined," he told the forum.
"Poverty, discrimination as well as human and environmental degradation comes from the same structural violence of xenophobia and colonialism.
"Hence the urgency to build mutually enriching, ethical and respectful relationships and partnerships with one another."
Organisers hope the forum will provide a opportunity to build capacity in LGBTI youth leaders in the Pacific Region.
"These are the individuals who are driving the dialogue when it comes to inclusiveness and equality in their individual communities and this event gives them a valuable opportunity to connect an collaborate with their peers from near and far," Kaleidoscope president Professor Paula Gerber said in a statement.
On Thursday attendees heard from US Special Envoy for Human Rights for LGBTI persons, Randy Berry, as well as Lachlan Strahan from DFAT.
The forum finishes on Friday.