United Nations: At Human Rights Day Event, UN Secretary-General Calls for End to Discrimination and Violence Against LGBT People

On December 10, 2010, in an unprecedented public appearance in support of global LGBT rights, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and United States Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice appeared on a Human Rights Day panel condemning violence against LGBT and the continued criminalization of gay people in more than 70 countries worldwide. In his impassioned statement, the Secretary-General made clear that commitment to universal human rights must trump cultural attitudes when there is a tension between the two.

The Secretary-General cited the importance of speaking out against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. "Violence will end only when we confront prejudice. Stigma and discrimination will end only when we agree to speak out. That requires all of us to do our part; to speak out at home, at work, in our schools and communities.” Mr. Ban said.

The event was sponsored this year by the Permanent Missions of Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, France, Gabon, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway, the United States Mission and the Delegation of the European Union. IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch collaborated with state representatives to coordinate and organize civil-society participation.

"It has been a challenging year for LGBT rights at the United Nations," said Cary Alan Johnson, Executive Director of IGLHRC speaking after the event "We have seen conservative forces try to keep organizations like IGLHRC out of the UN and we’ve suffered some painful setbacks as these same governments work to eliminate or prevent human rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The importance of this event and the support of figures like the UN Secretary-General and US Ambassador cannot be underestimated."

In a further significant show of support for LGBT rights at the United Nations, Ambassador Rice, supported in later statements by several other States, vowed that the United States would work in the full UN General Assembly to reinsert a longstanding reference to sexual orientation that was recently deleted during committee-level voting from the resolution on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions.

"We are going to fight to restore the reference to sexual orientation," the Ambassador announced. "We're going to stand firm on this basic principle. And we intend to win.” The vote on this resolution is expected to come up in the General Assembly on 20 December 2010.

"We look forward to governments in the General Assembly speaking and acting against discrimination when it really counts" said IGLHRC's Johnson. "Ensuring LGBT people are explicitly included in this resolution is one of those times."

Significantly, US Ambassador Susan Rice asserted, "Around the world, laws that criminalize gay relationships don’t just violate human rights. They hinder social cohesion, economic development, and public health. They reduce trust and cooperation among nations. So the United States will work together with our fellow Core Group members to urge countries that still have such laws to repeal them. And I hope we will all work together to develop a sustained, serious plan of action to decriminalize homosexuality around this world that we share."

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Joining the panel was Assistant Secretary-General on Human Rights, Mr. Ivan Simonovic, who warned States that international human rights law does not permit them to "use the force of the criminal law to arrest, detain, imprison and in some cases torture or execute their fellow human beings just because they, or even the majority in their society, disapprove of them."

Three LGBT human rights defenders joined the high-level speakers on this panel, and offered their perspectives on and experiences of discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Linda Baumann, the director of Out-Right Namibia, called out South Africa and the other African States that supported the removal of the reference to sexual orientation in the resolution on extrajudicial executions, explaining the problems faced by LGBT people in Africa.

"We are people who live in fear, people who are denounced by our families, who have school fees and support withdrawn, people who cannot freely express themselves and feel good about themselves, all due to the prejudice, stigma, and discrimination that we face because of the people we love or the way we express our gender."

Buse Kilickaya, a transgender activist and founder of the Turkish LGBT organization Pembe Hayat (Pink Life), in a statement read by Justus Eisfeld of Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE), outlined the dire situation of transgender people in Turkey.

"This year so far, at least seven known trans people were murdered. The widespread transphobia at the societal level and the indifference of government bodies to trans murders has fueled further incidents."

Finally, Vidyaratha Kissoon, a founding member of the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana, identified obstacles for LGBT equality in Guyana including sodomy laws, a law that criminalizes 'cross-dressing,' and anti-LGBT attitudes of government and religious figures. He also challenged the notion that homosexuality is a western imposition on other countries, pointing out that American religious groups have attempted to spread messages of homophobia not only in Africa but in the Caribbean as well. He ended on a message of hope:

"Hope exists in the courage and stamina of the young activists in Trinidad and Tobago who respectfully engaged the American Christian mission, and hope exists in the fact that sections of the media and civil society supported these young people."

During the interactive section of the panel, statements affirming the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and ending discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity were made by a number of States. These included the Philippines, Suriname, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Norway.

Concluding the panel, the Belgian Ambassador recalled the words of the Secretary-General's earlier statement that, "Human Rights Day commemorates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not called the partial declaration of human rights. It is not the sometimes declaration of human rights. It is the Universal Declaration, guaranteeing all human beings their basic human rights, without exception."

Read transcripts and watch video of this panel »