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Laws criminalizing homosexuality are incompatible with international human rights standards and fuel homophobia

Laws criminalizing same-sex relations between consenting adults remain on the statute books in more than 70 countries. They are an affront to principles of equality and non-discrimination and fuel hatred and violence—in effect giving homophobia a State-sanctioned seal of approval. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon have both called for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and for further measures to counter discrimination and prejudice directed at those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). In recent months, a series of incidents and developments have underscored the extent and the urgency of the challenge.

Homophobia, like racism and misogyny is a prejudice born of ignorance © OHCHRIn February 2011, Malawi enacted a law criminalizing homosexuality among women. Homosexuality is already illegal for men in that county. If convicted, a defendant could receive up to five years’ imprisonment. Responding to the Malawian decision, the High Commissioner said “I have repeatedly argued that laws criminalizing homosexuality are inherently discriminatory and incompatible with existing international human right standards, including those enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Malawi has acceded, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Malawi has ratified.”

In Uganda, on 26 January 2011, leading gay human rights activist David Kato was beaten to death in his home outside Kampala. In the months leading up to his murder, he had been a target of a hate-campaign mounted by a local newspaper, The Rolling Stone, which printed his name, photograph and address alongside those of dozens of others the paper claimed were gay or lesbian, and called for them to be hanged.

“We must await the outcome of judicial proceedings to know who killed him and why. But whoever is responsible and whatever their motive, we know the fear felt by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in Uganda and elsewhere who continue to face widespread prejudice and the constant threat of homophobic violence. Kato’s death robs them of a brave and eloquent advocate. The Ugandan authorities must act to counter this climate of hate and ensure the safety of all Ugandans,” the High Commissioner said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and a pending Anti-Homosexual Bill would broaden the criminalization of homosexuality, imposing life imprisonment or even the death penalty for anyone who is found to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or HIV positive. The Bill also includes a provision that could lead to a prison sentence of up to three years for anyone who fails to report within 24 hours the identities of any LGBT individual, including members of their own family.

Even where homosexuality is not subject to criminal sanctions, LGBT individuals continue to suffer discrimination and violence, fuelled by homophobia. In the United States, for example, the recent suicide of seven teenage boys in the space of a single month was attributed to homophobic bullying in schools. Homophobia also lay behind the shocking case of three young men, kidnapped, beaten and tortured in New York City in October 2010. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in the United States, 2,181 hate crimes targeting LGBT persons were recorded in 2009, including 22 murders.

In Honduras, seven transgender persons were reported murdered during a two month period between November 2010 and January 2011, bringing a total of 34 LGBT persons killed in that country since June 2009, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States.

In Brazil, Grupo Gay da Bahia, a long established NGO working on LGBT human rights issues, recently reported that in 2010, 250 LGBT individuals were killed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—equivalent to one person killed every day and a half. The same source reports that more than 3,100 homosexuals have been killed in Brazil since 1980.

“Decriminalizing homosexuality is an essential first step towards establishing genuine equality before the law. But real, lasting progress cannot be achieved by changing laws alone. We must change minds as well. Like racism and misogyny, homophobia is a prejudice born of ignorance. And like other forms of prejudice, the most effective long-term response is information and education,” the High Commissioner said.

10 March 2011