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Hello, I’m Navi Pillay and I’m the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Just over seventeen years ago, here at the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York, a decision was made of historic proportions. The date was March 31, 1994. A young Australian human rights activist called Nicholas Toonen had brought a case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which is responsible for interpreting and applying the international treaty on civil and political rights. Mr Toonen alleged that his human rights were violated by the existence of a law in his home state of Tasmania that criminalized all sexual relationships between consenting adult men, including in private.
The Committee, after examining the arguments and counter-arguments, agreed with him. It decided that Australia was in breach of its international obligations under that treaty. The law in question, the Committee found, violated Mr. Toonen’s human rights. It subjected him to the threat of arrest, detention and criminalization simply because he happened to be homosexual rather than heterosexual. And it also had a wider, negative effect on society at large by reinforcing stigma and prejudice.
The case, known as Toonen v. Australia, marked a watershed with wide-ranging implications for the human rights of millions of people. The Human Rights Committee had made clear that the right to be free from discrimination applies to everyone—gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual.
Sometimes history is made with great fanfare. Sometimes, as at the UN, it is made in ordinary meeting rooms, before banks of stenographers and interpreters, recorded in official UN documents, translated into multiple languages. So it was in this case. But the result reverberated around the world. Nicholas Toonen had his complaint upheld. The Australian State of Tasmania removed the offending law from its statute books. And a signal was sent to all other countries that had similar laws.
The Human Rights Committee has since reaffirmed its position in successive cases, entrenching in human rights law the principle that no country is entitled to discriminate against people on grounds of their sexuality. It is a principle that has since been endorsed by other UN human rights treaty bodies dealing with other areas of human rights law, such as torture, children’s rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and discrimination against women.
Since 1994, more than 30 countries have taken steps to abolish the offence of homosexuality. Some have enacted new laws providing greater protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. And in many parts of the world, we have witnessed a remarkable shift in public attitudes, in favour of greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people.
But criminal sanctions remain in place in more than 70 countries—exposing millions to the risk of arrest, imprisonment, even, in some cases the death penalty, not because they have harmed anyone else or pose a threat to others, but simply for being who they are and for loving another human being. And, of course, in many countries, homophobia remains rife, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons continue to suffer targeted killings, beatings, torture, and rape.
Last year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched an appeal for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and for every country to ensure equal rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said, is just that. It is universal and it applies to us all—whoever we are, whatever we look like, whoever we share our lives with. No exceptions.
This debate is unfolding in front of us. It goes to the heart of what we believe. It challenges us all to live up to the fundamental principle on which, in the end, all our human rights rest: the equal worth and the equal dignity of all human beings.
Published on August 3, 2011 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization