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Remarks by UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, at the event entitled “Ethics of Reciprocity”, New York, 26 October 2017

Thank you to the organizers of today’s event – particularly Reverend Ackerman and Geronimo Desumala – and to the Arcus Foundation for their support.

I like the title you chose for today’s discussion: the “Ethics of Reciprocity”. The idea that we should treat others as we wish them to treat us – often referred to as “The Golden Rule” – finds echoes in all of the world’s major religions – especially those represented here today.

I want to commend the organizers for the lengths they have gone to to bring people of conflicting views on LGBTI issues – including some who have spoken publicly in the past of their discomfort with the subject.

We’ve never before had so many faith leaders from different communities gathered here at the UN with the express purpose of discussing how to approach the challenge of protecting LGBTI people from violence and discrimination. So this is an important first.

Our Office – the UN Human Rights Office – has pushed hard for Governments to do more to safeguard the rights of members of the LGBTI community and to address high rates of violence, discrimination and social exclusion that affect millions of LGBTI people around the world.

We have done so because the evidence tells us that every day LGBTI people are attacked and even killed because of who they are and whom they love.

We have done so because in countries right around the world, being gay or trans or intersex means that people get treated differently – and unfairly – including in the workplace.

And we have done so because every day, LGBTI young people – especially adolescents at school – face brutal and relentless bullying because they don’t quite fit traditional gender stereotypes. Tragically, many of those young people end up being driven out of school, running away from home, and become isolated, depressed – sometimes suicidal.

As people of conscience – let alone as human rights advocates – none of us can be satisfied with the status quo. Change is needed if people are to be protected from this kind of intimidation and violence.

And things are changing. We are making progress. At the UN, some 112 countries and counting have now accepted UN recommendations to change their laws and take other measures to protect LGBTI people from violence and discrimination.

There is of course still widespread resistance – more so in some parts of the world than others. Time and again the most common arguments raised against change have to do with culture, tradition and – above all – religion.

Faith has long been a source of both solace and suffering for LGBTI people. Solace because many continue to cherish their faith communities, and suffering because too many LGBTI people have been forced to abandon their places of worship in the face of hostility from religious leaders.

From a legal perspective the situation is relatively clear cut. Freedom of religion is a protected right. You – and we – are absolutely entitled to subscribe to whatever religious belief we hold dear – nobody should be able to take that away or punish us for it.

But – and it’s a crucial “but” – nobody’s right to freedom of religion and belief should be used as justification to take away someone else’s rights. Or, to put it another way, even if someone might sincerely believe that gay people are wayward and that religion dictates they should be rounded up or imprisoned, that does not justify gay people being actually rounded up and imprisoned.

The sad reality is that in societies all around the world, religion is used as a pretext for oppressing LGBTI people and for taking away their rights. While plenty of religious leaders are trying to turn the tide and appealing for a more inclusive approach that cherishes LGBTI people like anyone else, their voices are all too often drowned out by more populist leaders.

In some cases, they actively encourage violence and hatred in the name of religion – whether it’s the U.S. pastor who travelled to Uganda to incite hatred, or the shaykh who posts videos online explaining how to kill gay men. And those are extreme but, sadly, not isolated examples. It’s a long way away from the ethics of reciprocity.

I hope that today’s discussions may offer a chance to start a different sort of dialogue – one that might even help all of us here understand better those who view these issues differently. It’s a chance, above all, to listen to one another and to try to put ourselves – whoever we are – in the shoes of people who strongly differ with us.

I’d like to thank all of you for being here, and thank you for your willingness to listen to me – but most importantly to one other.