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What David Kato’s death can teach the world

1 February 2011

News of the brutal murder of Ugandan human rights activist David Kato has reverberated around the world. Kato was beaten to death at his home outside of Kampala on January 26. He had dedicated much of his working life to helping those persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the months leading up to his death, he had himself 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.

Just last month, he and two other litigants took the newspaper to court, successfully securing an injunction against the newspaper to prevent it publishing similar stories in future. Kato’s visibility as an openly gay man and an activist for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has understandably fuelled speculation that he was the victim of a fatal homophobic attack. At the time of writing, a police investigation continues into the circumstances of his death.

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.

If Kato’s murder stimulates discussion about the violence and discrimination facing people because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity, then his death will not have been completely in vain. That discussion must inevitably address the question of decriminalising homosexuality. Criminal sanctions for homosexuality remain on the statute books in more than 70 countries, including Uganda.

Such laws are an anachronism, in most cases a hangover from the old days of colonial rule. They are inherently discriminatory and constitute a violation of the human rights of those whose conduct they seek to sanction. States often justify the existence of these laws with reference to popular opinion. Yet popular opinion alone can never justify depriving certain people of their rights. People are entitled to disapprove of homosexuality. They are entitled to express their disapproval. But they are not entitled to harm or inflict violence on their fellow human beings, nor to use the criminal law to have them arrested, imprisoned, even in some cases executed, simply because they disapprove of them.

Decriminalising 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 prejudice born of ignorance. And like other forms of prejudice, the most effective long-term response is information and education.

Over the past half century, we have seen a marked shift in public attitudes in almost all societies towards race, gender and disability. The challenge, for all those who believe in human rights and non-discrimination, is to encourage a similar shift in public attitudes towards those whose sexual orientation or gender identity differs from that of the majority in society. This is a major undertaking that will require the involvement and commitment of us all.

Basic messages on non-discrimination, equality and human rights should be included in school curricula everywhere, reinforced by effective public education campaigns that engage the general public. The role of civil society is vital. Wherever social progress has been achieved over the last hundred years, it has involved the concerted efforts of community-based groups and other non-governmental organisations. Today, with the presence of social media and Internet-based campaigns, the potential impact of civil society-led public education is greater than ever.
We at the United Nations must be prepared to support and encourage this change. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has already committed himself to the task. Speaking on Human Rights Day on December 10, 2010, he pledged to work for the worldwide decriminalisation of homosexuality, using both private diplomacy and public advocacy to mobilise support. “Violence will end only when we confront prejudice”, he said. “Stigma and discrimination will end only when we agree to speak out. That requires all of us to do our part; to speak out at home, at work, in our schools and communities; to stand in solidarity.”

Today, we mark the loss of a remarkable man, a remarkable human rights activist. Let us honour Kato’s memory by recommitting to the values he sought to defend: the equal worth and dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.

Ms Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights