The UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, marked 10 December 2010, international human rights day, with a landmark speech on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. He called on all States and individuals to join forces to end violence and discrimination against LGBT persons. Departing from the safe ground of UN diplomacy, the Secretary-General vowed to 'put himself on the line’ and pledged to “to speak out, at every opportunity, wherever I go …to rally support for the decriminalization of homosexuality everywhere in the world.” To show these were not empty words, the Secretary-General spoke of his advocacy for decriminalisation when he met with African leaders during a recent visit. He proudly referred to his personal intervention on the part of a young gay couple sentenced to 14 years prison in Malawi, which spurred the President to release them the same day.
Although he acknowledged the controversy that surrounds the discussion of sexual orientation at the UN, and the range of views amongst States, the Secretary-General called on all governments to decriminalise homosexuality “because it is the right thing to do”. His comment that there was no such thing as the ‘partial declaration’ or the ‘sometimes declaration’ – only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – clearly made an impression on the packed room, as several States incorporated the reference in their subsequent remarks.
Through her statement, US Ambassador to the UN, Ms Susan Rice, set out to ensure that all States are now on notice that the US intends to champion the rights of LGBT people at the UN. She reminded delegates that the US was now a supporter of the 2008 General Assembly Statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity; a member of the LGBT core group (a group of States that support and advocate for the human rights of LGBT persons at the UN); and had fought hard in 2010 to ensure that LGBT NGOs could successfully apply for consultative status with the UN. It was clear that the US' next mission at the UN is to re-insert the reference to ‘discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation’ back into the resolution on extrajudicial executions.
Ambassador Rice spoke of being “incensed” by the initiative, brought by the African Group and supported by others, to delete language from the resolution that specifically urged States to protect against and investigate killings committed because of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although it was always a controversial element of the resolution, the vote in the Third Committee this year was the first time in more than ten years that it had not been retained.(1) Ambassador Rice’s statement that “...we are going to fight to restore the reference to sexual orientation. ...And we intend to win” means that there will be heightened interest on 20th December when the General Assembly plenary is scheduled to adopt the resolution on extrajudicial executions, along with the rest of the Third Committee's work.
The Secretary-General’s speech and that of Ambassador Rice kicked-off a high-level panel discussion on ‘Ending violence and criminal sanctions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity’. Several months in the making, the event was co-organised by the Permanent Missions of Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, France, Gabon, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the US and the Delegation of the European Union. Also part of the official proceedings was a powerful video address by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which had been screened at a similar event on 17 September 2010 at the UN in Geneva. He reminded States that LGBT people are “part of the ‘African family” and “equal members of the human family”, and as such, States had sworn to uphold their rights.
This was followed up by the first statement on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity by the new Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) on Human Rights, Mr Ivan Simonovic. He reminded States of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ advocacy on this issue, as well as that of the treaty bodies and special procedures of the Human Rights Council. He commented that he felt "enitirely supported" in his convictions by "the body of international human rights law and by the expert mechanisms established by States to promote compliance.” Even though he acknowledged that many States had different interpretations of international law, and were entitled to see things differently or even disapprove of homosexuality, he warned States that they were not entitled to “use the force of the criminal law to arrest, detain, imprison and in some cases torture or execute their fellow human beings just because they, or even the majority in their society, disapprove of them."
Voices of civil society were also part of the official proceedings, and included LGBT human rights defenders from Namibia (Ms Linda Baumann), Turkey (Ms Buse Kılıçkaya) and Guyana (Mr Vidyaratha Kissoon). Ms Baumann appealed to the leadership of African States to reverse their discriminatory approach to LGBT people in Africa, and spoke of the "deep pain" the LGBT community felt when it heard about the African Group's initiative to delete the reference to sexual orientation from the extrajudicial executions resolution. The defender from Guyana focused on where there were pockets of support in the media and community leadership in the Caribbean, and his message of hope was noted by a number of speakers. The trans activist from Turkey was unable to obtain a visa to attend the event in person. However, her statement was read by a US-based colleague, and included a stern rebuke to the organisers of the event for objecting to having a self-proclaimed sex worker on a UN panel, particularly given the theme under discussion.
Amongst the seven States that took part in the subsequent discussion, it was significant that none disagreed with or challenged the viewpoints from the high-level panel or the human rights defenders. At similar events on human rights day in New York in the recent past, this has not been the case.(2) The one note of discord came from Suriname, whose delegate prefaced his remarks by acknowledging that the UN was right to be focussing on ‘LGBT groups’. However he then listed a number of other groups who were being discriminated against, but not receiving the level of attention that was warranted. These included people infected with HIV, ‘midgets’, ‘heavy persons’, albinos and victims of female genital mutilation.
Most States who took the floor wanted to draw attention to progress they had made domestically to combat various forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Areas of progress included legalisation of same sex marriage (Argentina, Netherlands); removal of discriminatory laws or policies against same sex couples (Colombia); successful legal action to uphold an equal protection clause in the constitution, which allowed an LGBT organisation to compete in national elections (Philippines); introduction of a national action plan to ensure equal rights for LGBT persons (Norway). In addition, Brazil emphasised its long-standing support for the human rights of LGBT individuals, and the Netherlands drew attention to a conference on LGBT rights that the Council of Europe would host in 2013.
As the last speaker, Norway also drew attention to the significance of the meeting, which it saw as a “milestone event for LGBT rights at the UN”. It was grateful for the Secretary-General’s leadership on the issue, and the “visible commitment” of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Assistant Secretary-General. In response to the US Government’s campaign to reinstate sexual orientation in the extrajudicial executions resolution, Norway on behalf of the Nordic Group (which traditionally sponsors the resolution), pledged its support.
In closing the event, the Belgium Ambassador thanked the participants for contributing to the discussion in an open, mature, constructive and non-confrontational manner. He acknowledged that this was often not the case when such sensitive issues were considered at the UN. Rather, many States perceived the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity as a purely Western initiative that was designed to force these values on others without respect for their cultural or religious sensitivity. However, he hoped that today’s discussion had demonstrated that the real motivation of States was to ensure that all people, everywhere, were able to enjoy their human rights equally, free from all forms of discrimination, and free from fear. In a veiled reference to the recent debate in the Third Committee on the extrajudicial execution text, he reminded States that the UN was right to focus on the rights of particular groups because some “need extra effort” from States. He stressed that those States advocating the rights of LGBT persons were not seeking to create ‘new rights’, or to argue about the various interpretations of international law. Instead they hoped that all States would acknowledge the reality on the ground, and the need for all individuals to receive equal protection under the law. In Belgium’s view, this was the very basis of the Universal Declaration, on which the entire human rights system rested.
(1) For background, refer to ISHR’s news story on the vote in the Third Committee on the extrajudicial executions resolution.
(2) In 2008 and 2009, States from the African Group, Arab Group and the Organisation of Islamic Conference intervened to condemn all kinds of discrimination, but questioned whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was recognised under international law. It was also noteworthy that the Holy See did not contribute to the discussion this year, as it has in previous years.