Remarks by High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
20 September 2017
Prime Minister Muscat,
Deputy Prime Minister De Croo,
Next year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will turn 70. There is a great deal to celebrate. The Declaration has been the springboard to seven decades of progress in advancing and strengthening human rights globally.
But as we approach this landmark anniversary, many of those gains look increasingly fragile. Populist forces are still with us and civil society is under growing pressure. Legal frameworks that took decades to secure are being undermined, as opportunistic politicians present people with a false choice – a fatal choice – between security and freedom.
As always, when rights are rolled back, it’s minorities that are most exposed – immigrants, religious minorities, racial minorities and, of course, lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex people. Invariably, those who lose the most are those who have the least to begin with – the least power, money and public support.
Gay and lesbian people, and to a lesser extent trans people, have seen huge gains over the past 20 years – although we should acknowledge that those gains have been very uneven, both geographically and across the LGBTI spectrum.
We are honoured to have with us today the Prime Minister of Malta, a country which has emerged as a global trailblazer, introducing a raft of measures to protect the rights of LGBT people, and – in a first for Europe – intersex people. Also with us, leaders from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom – all of whom can point to historic advances.
But while many governments are moving in the right direction, too many are falling short. Some are not even trying. Reports by my Office frequently reveal a landscape of brutal violence and widespread discrimination, fuelled by negative public attitudes and in many cases actively sanctioned by the State.
I wholeheartedly support the Core Group’s call for dialogue. We need more dialogue within countries, and between them. But the premise for dialogue must be clear: not whether to end these abuses, but how. LGBTI people are full members of the human family. They are not lesser than the rest of us; they are equal – and, as such, they are entitled to enjoy the same rights as everyone else.
I understand that in many parts of the world this is a difficult topic to broach. When pressed, officials sometimes tell me their hands are tied: the public, they say, will never accept equality for LGBTI people. But surely this is back to front. If public opinion is hostile towards LGBTI people, that makes it more urgent for governments to act to protect them.
Research suggests that the most important factor in determining someone’s level of acceptance of gay and trans people is not their education or income, but whether they personally know someone who is openly gay or trans. As more and more LGBTI people come out, speak up and share their stories, they are going to change the world around them – it’s unstoppable. Our task is to protect people as they do so, and to support them as they claim their rights.
We look to governments to set up the necessary protections to keep LGBTI people safe from harm. We ask all governments to allow individuals to love whom they choose, to outlaw discrimination, tackle hate crimes and the bullying so frequent in schools, and to protect intersex children from harm – including by banning medically unnecessary surgery on intersex infants. The onus has to be on governments to protect and respect rights – and explain to the public why these measures are needed.
Still we also know from experience that governments cannot end discrimination alone. It takes all of us – including the media, schools, faith leaders, and, critically, the business community.
Next week I will be launching a new set of global standards, developed by my Office, which highlight the actions that businesses can and should take to end discrimination against LGBTI people, in the workplace and beyond.
None of our work would be possible without the real heroes of this cause: the LGBTI activists and their allies who stand up for rights, even where they face the wrath of the law, their governments and public opinion. They deserve our gratitude and support. I honour their essential work.
All of us can emulate their example. We must push forward and overcome the obstacles to equality -- in workplaces, schools, the law-courts and the streets. The time for justice is now.