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A stain on our collective conscience

BAN Ki-moon told the Human Rights Council that he understood those who see sexual orientation and gender as “a sensitive subject”. The Secretary-General said, like many of his generation, he did not discuss these issues when he was growing up but has learned to speak out “because lives are at stake”.

At its meeting in Geneva the Human Rights Council debated a report on discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council commissioned the report in mid-2011, expressing grave concern at the acts of violence and discrimination in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

BAN Ki-moon said the report “documents a pattern of violence and discrimination directed at people just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.” He referred to the report’s description of “widespread bias in the workplace… at school and in hospitals… appalling violent attacks… This is a monumental tragedy for the individuals involved – and a stain on our collective conscience,” he said.

“It is also a violation of international law,” BAN Ki-moon said. “It is up to you, as members of the Human Rights Council, to respond.”

In her address, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay also acknowledged the divergent views among Member States on the rights of individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Those concerns should not be dismissed, Pillay said, “As always people are entitled to their opinion. They are free to disapprove of same-sex relationships, for example. They have an absolute right to believe – and to follow in their own lives – whatever religious teachings they choose.”

“But that is as far as it goes,” Pillay said. “The balance between tradition and culture, on the one hand, and universal human rights, on the other, must be struck in favour of rights.”

The Council’s panel discussion was keenly anticipated with many Member States competing for the speaking slots offered in the limited time available. Those who spoke reflected the wide variety of views on the subject. They ranged from those who believe consideration of the issue does not belong in the internationally agreed human rights framework and should not have been taken up by the Council at all, to pledges of support on the basis that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is about ensuring the full range of existing rights are available to all.

The Council report focuses on three areas: violence against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity, discriminatory laws and inequitable practices which prevent lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or gay (LGBT) people enjoying the full range of human rights in their everyday lives.

Pillay noted that official statistics detailing violence against LGBT persons are rare but where they are available, they invariably show “startlingly high levels of violence and brutality”.

“When such incidents are targeted, when they are part of a systematic pattern of violence, as they are in this context, then they constitute a grave human rights challenge to which this Council has a responsibility to respond,” Pillay said.

On discriminatory laws, Pillay said there are at least “76 countries [which] retain laws that either explicitly criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults, or contain vague prohibitions that are applied in a discriminatory way to prosecute LGBT people.”

Pillay described the discriminatory practices that often affect every aspect of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people: employers who refuse to hire LGBT people or who fire them; children who are harassed attacked and intimidated at school; exclusion and discrimination in healthcare facilities; limits on access to employees benefits and pension funds; and the refusal of States to issue identity papers which reflect a person’s preferred gender.

Referring to the report and its recommendations, both BAN Ki-moon and Pillay called on States to act now to overcome the prejudice, discrimination and violence directed at people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Tackle the violence, decriminalize consensual same-sex relationships, ban discrimination and educate the public,” the Secretary-General said.

“To those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, let me say: You are not alone,” BAN Ki-moon said. “Your struggle for an end to violence and discrimination is a shared struggle. Any attack on you is an attack on the universal values the United Nations and I have sworn to defend and uphold. Today, I stand with you and I call upon all countries and people to stand with you, too.”

Describing it as an historic moment for both the Council and the United Nations, Pillay urged action: “We all have the opportunity to begin together a new chapter dedicated to ending violence and discrimination against all people, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

7 March 2012

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