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Remarks by Marcia V. J. Kran, Director, Research and Right to Development Division, UN Human Rights Office

Plaque Dedication Ceremony to Commemorate
the Execution by Drowning of Bartholomé Tecia,
Convicted on Charges of Homosexuality, Geneva, 1566

10 June 2013, Place Bel-Air, Geneva

Your Excellency, Mr. Charles Beer, President of the Canton of Geneva
Distinguished colleagues and friends,

I am grateful to City of Geneva and to Network Gay Leadership for bringing us together to commemorate and reflect on the story of Bartholomé Tecia – the fifteen year old schoolboy charged with homosexual conduct, convicted and executed by drowning on this spot on this day in 1566.

This terrible incident was not the first of its kind; nor, sadly, would it be the last. Throughout through the medieval period and into the early modern age, across Europe and beyond, boys like Bartholomé – and sometimes girls too – were arrested, tried and executed. Some were drowned, others burned, or stoned. Those who escaped death were often subjected to mutilation, castration and other forms of cruel punishment.

Standing here by the banks of the Rhone on this beautiful late Spring morning, modern Geneva going about its business all around us, the story of Bartholomé Tecia seems to belong to a distant age. But the uncomfortable reality is that traces of Bartholomé’s world survive to this day. The same taboo that sent Bartholomé to an early death in the waters behind me continues to fuel ignorance, fear and hate – and to cut short promising young lives.

 Homosexuality was effectively decriminalized in Switzerland in 1942. Even so, today it remains a criminal offence in at least 76 countries around the world. In five of these, national law provides for the death penalty to be applied to anyone found guilty of consensual same sex conduct; and in at least two others, local courts may hand down the death penalty on the basis of Sharia law.

Even in parts of the world where the State no longer executes or imprisons people for being gay, stigma, prejudice and discrimination live on. On the streets of towns of cities across Europe and around the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are targets of physical attack, sexual violence and murder. Much of this violence is especially brutal: the bodies of LGBT murder victims, for example, are often found disfigured, dismembered or bearing signs of torture – reflecting the appalling depth of hatred that drives many of these attacks.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called violence and discrimination against LGBT people “one of the great, neglected human rights issues of our day”. Over the past three years, both he and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, have championed the cause of freedom and equality for LGBT people everywhere. Next month, the High Commissioner’s office will launch a first-of-its kind global public information campaign against homophobia and transphobia – reflecting the importance that we attach to changing not just laws but hearts and minds as well.

Equally significant is the shift in the balance of opinion among States in recent years. Far more countries now recognize the reality and gravity of human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people, and the need to respond effectively. In 2011, here in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council, passed a historic resolution that for the first time recognized homophobic violence and discrimination as human rights abuses that warrant attention at the level of the United Nations.

For millions of LGBT people living in Europe, the Americas and in pockets of Asia and Africa, the world is undoubtedly become a better, safer, fairer place. Even in countries where progress has so far been lacking and resistance most entrenched, we have seen the rise of a new consciousness and a new level of activism on the part of the LGBT community and its allies that were previously absent.

In 1566, as Bartholomé was led to his death, no-one stood, as we stand today, to decry the State-sanctioned killing of a child on suspicion of homosexuality. No-one was prepared, as we are today, to challenge homophobic prejudice, to insist on the equal worth and equal rights of every person, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

It would be beautiful to think that out of this one sad, lonely death in the Rhone, more than four centuries ago, might come some good; that passers-by who see this plaque will pause and reflect on the folly of homophobia; and that we can all draw from Bartholomé’s story the strength to continue our modern day struggle to achieve equality for LGBT people everywhere.

Thank you.