The Hague, 17 May 2013
Colleagues and friends,
It is a privilege to be with you in this beautiful theatre to mark a day that has grown in significance in recent years for millions of people around the world: May 17th, the International Day against Homophobia.
We observe many official international days at the United Nations – more than 100 of them, in fact. Unfortunately, the International Day against Homophobia is not amongst them. The reason is that the United Nations General Assembly has not (or not yet) passed a resolution designating it an official UN day.
This fact is in itself telling. For all the progress of recent years – and there has been remarkable progress – many States are still reluctant to acknowledge the extent of violence and discrimination meted out to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.
But the fact that that States are divided on these issues is not a reason to hold back from confronting the extremes of discrimination and the exclusion that are suffered by so many across the world.
A little over a year ago, I stood in the grand chamber of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and presented the first ever official UN report documenting violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
After decades of silence, an issue that had long been kept off the agenda was at last the subject of formal discussion among States at the United Nations. This was a momentous break in our long struggle for full legal equality for LGBT people everywhere.
But it was also long overdue, and the report that I presented was chilling. It detailed appalling human rights violations directed at individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. I will highlight three areas of particular concern that require immediate attention.
The first relates to violent, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, which take place with alarming regularity in all regions of the world. These range from aggressive, sustained psychological bullying through to physical assault, torture, kidnapping and even murder. Sexual violence has also been widely reported—including the phenomenon of so-called “corrective” or “punitive” rape, in which men rape women assumed to be lesbian on the grotesque pretext that this will somehow “cure” their victims’ homosexuality.
Attacks regularly take place in public spaces, schools and private homes, as well as prisons and police cells. They may be spontaneous or organized; perpetrated by individual strangers or by extremist groups. And they are brutal. LGBT murder victims are often found to have been sexually assaulted and/or severely mutilated – including burning or castration. Transgender persons face an especially high risk of deadly and cruel violence.
A second area of concern relates to the criminalization of homosexuality. It is nearly 20 years since the UN Human Rights Committee first established that criminalizing consensual, same-sex relationships violates people’s rights to privacy and non-discrimination.
In that time, more than 30 States have taken steps to remove homosexuality-related offences from their legal systems. But in at least 76 countries, people continue to be punished under criminal law just because their partner is someone of the same sex. Penalties range from short-term to life imprisonment, sometimes with hard labour. In at least five countries, national law provides for the death penalty to punish consensual, adult same-sex conduct.
Getting rid of these laws is an essential first step towards removing the stigma that fuels so many other human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people.
My third area of concern is the prevalence of discriminatory practices against LGBT individuals, and a corresponding lack of legal protection by national laws. This lack of effective protection makes it possible for employers to fire their workers, school administrators to expel students, healthcare workers to deny essential services to patients, and parents to disown their own children -- or force them into marriage, or into psychiatric institutions – in each case simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.
In some instances, States are not just passively permitting discrimination to take place but actively contributing to it. In Eastern Europe, for example, we have seen discriminatory bans on pride marches and similar gatherings, and new laws restricting public discussion of issues related to homosexuality. Many countries – including European Union States – still force transgender people to undergo sterilization in order to obtain updated identity papers, which are essential to daily life.
The absence of legal recognition of same-sex relationships is yet another source of discrimination, hardship and insecurity for many lesbian, gay and bisexual people, as well as for their families, which include millions of children growing up with parents of the same sex.
Many positive initiatives have been taken in recent years. In much of Europe and in North and Latin America, as well as in several other countries, we have witnessed determined efforts to improve the human rights situation of LGBT people. Discrimination has been banned, hate crimes have been penalized, same-sex relationships have been granted recognition, and efforts have made it easier for transgender individuals to obtain official documents that reflect their preferred gender.
In many cases, training programmes have also been developed to sensitize police, prison staff, teachers, social workers and other personnel. Anti-bullying initiatives have been implemented in many schools.
But while there is much to cheer, far more remains to be done. Too many States still have laws in effect that criminalize same-sex relationships. Several have actually taken steps to strengthen criminal sanctions, or to expand the application of existing laws. Far too few States have laws that offer comprehensive protection from discrimination. Even fewer have efficient systems for documenting, let alone combating, homophobic hate crime.
Changing laws and policies is essential if we want to secure legal equality for LGBT people. But no less important – and in some respects a great deal more challenging – will be changing the hearts and minds of those who resist reform.
Both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and I have spoken of the need for more public education to tackle homophobia at its roots. This is primarily the responsibility of Governments, with the active involvement of civil society.
But I believe the United Nations can and should do more to encourage this process. The video we’ve just seen is a taste of more to come. Later this year, we will launch a public information campaign that I hope will help to dispel some of the more toxic myths that get in the way of rationale dialogue on this issue, and will help people understand why action is needed to tackle homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination.
We all draw on the well of our own experience in our approach to these issues. I am a child of South Africa. I do not need to imagine what it is like to be treated as inferior: it happened to me.
Some were surprised when South Africa, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership, wrote into its post-apartheid constitution cast-iron protection from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. It happened because South Africans understood that discrimination is unacceptable on any basis. Real equality admits no exceptions.
It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who first coined the term “rainbow nation” to describe a country that draws strength, not suspicion, from the differences among its people; pride, not fear, from its diversity. And perhaps that, writ large, is as fair a summary as any of the cause that has brought us here tonight. The world we want really is rainbow coloured. It is a world of brilliant diversity, where each one of us is free and equal, and where everyone is treated with the same measure of respect and dignity.
Thank you for being here and for your contribution to this great human rights cause.