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Opening Remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the Free & Equal Campaign Press Launch

Cape Town, 26 July 2013

Hello and thank you for being here for the launch of the Free & Equal campaign.

I am delighted to be joined today by two dear friends who are also great friends of human rights. Both are towering figures who need no introduction: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Justice Edwin Cameron. I am so grateful to you both for your presence and your moral support for this initiative.

The Free & Equal campaign is without precedent. It is the first time that the United Nations has launched a global public education initiative dedicated to combating homophobia and transphobia, and to promoting respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

One need only read the news or turn on the radio to know just how critical a campaign like this is right now.

My office at the United Nations regularly receives reports of individuals who have been attacked, sexually assaulted, kidnapped, tortured, even murdered simply because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises a world in which everyone is born free and equal in dignity and rights – no exceptions, no-one left behind. Yet it’s a hollow promise for many millions of LGBT people forced to confront hatred, intolerance, violence and widespread discrimination on a daily basis.

These abuses require a response. Fortunately, a growing number of Governments are responding – with varying degrees of effectiveness – and in recent years we have seen important advances, including the introduction of new legal protections in many countries.

But the situation remains very uneven. In some countries, LGBT people have achieved something approaching full legal equality. In others, a lack of legal protection exposes them to unchecked discrimination at work, at school, in clinics and hospitals and many other areas.

And in more than a third of the world’s countries, consensual, same-sex conduct remains a criminal offence – exposing people to the risk of arrest and imprisonment, hard labour, even, in five countries, the death penalty just because of who they are and whom they love.

So, legal changes are needed. The United Nations human rights office works with countries in all regions to bring their laws into line with international human rights standards. This is one area where there is certainly still plenty of work to be done.

But we know from experience that eradicating discrimination requires more than changes in laws and policies. It takes a change in people’s hearts and minds as well.

I was reminded of this truth when reading about the recent spate of appalling, brutal murders of lesbians here in South Africa – part of a longer term pattern. South Africa has some of the best laws in the world when it comes to protecting the rights of gay and lesbian people but it also has some of the worst cases of homophobic violence. People are literally paying for their love with their lives.

Changing attitudes is never easy. But it has happened on other issues and it is happening already in many parts of the world on this one. It begins with often difficult conversations.  With this campaign, we want to help start millions of conversations among people around the world and across the ideological spectrum.  

Over the coming year, we will be releasing a variety of creative content – including videos, like the one you just watched, articles, maps and other graphics – all intended to dispel negative stereotypes and encourage more informed discussion in the media and among friends and family, policymakers and community leaders.

All campaign materials will be made available on the campaign’s website, UNFE.org, and be designed for easy sharing via social media.

I am pleased to announce that a number of celebrities with a commitment to equality have already pledged to support Free & Equal, including by helping us to get our message out through social media. They include Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who we just heard from, along with U.S. pop star Ricky Martin, Bollywood actress Celina Jaitly and Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury. We will be announcing additional celebrity champions of equality as the campaign unfolds.

Finally, like many people, my thoughts in recent weeks have been with President Nelson Mandela – a moral giant not just for this country but for the whole world. I think we have probably all found ourselves reflecting on the lessons President Mandela taught us. Among them, that real equality admits no exceptions … that to enjoy freedom we must not only cast off our own chains, but also learn to live in a way that respects the freedom of others.

Nelson Mandela was also a great believer education as our best weapon against prejudice. People are not born hating one another, he said. They learn to hate. And if people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

I can think of no greater inspiration for the project we are launching today.

With that, I would like to hand over to someone who is another wonderful source of inspiration and wisdom, Archbishop Tutu, who would like to say a few words.