Statement by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights to the Panel Discussion on ending violence and criminal sanctions based on sexual orientation and gender identity

8 December 2011
New York

Panel on violence and discrimination
based on sexual orientation and gender identity
ECOSOC Chamber, UNHQ, 8 December 2011

Statement by United Nations Assistant Secretary-General
for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović

Thank you Chairman,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear colleagues,

I would like to thank the Secretary-General for his message and also the cosponsors of today’s event for bringing us together to discuss an issue that, I think, receives too little attention here at the United Nations and in many parts of the world: homophobic violence and discrimination directed at young people because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

I am delighted to share the podium with my co-panellists, who have come from near and far and are each in their respective fields working with dedication and commitment to address this problem in their own communities.

Several of them may be able to talk about their personal experiences that brought them to this work and I hope we can also focus too on how we can all, as individuals, as members of our communities and as the United Nations respond properly.

At the suggestion of the organizers of today’s panel, I am going to focus in my remarks not so much on the specific problem of homophobic bullying of young people, but on how UN Member States and the United Nations human rights system are responding to wider challenge of homophobic violence and discrimination.

At the UN human rights office, we know, from our work monitoring human rights around the world, that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or intersex are particularly at risk of certain kinds of human rights violations simply because of hostility towards them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In many countries, discrimination towards gay and lesbian people is hardwired into the law. This is the case, for example, in some 76 countries where individuals face criminal sanctions just for loving and engaging in private in consensual sexual relations with another adult of the same sex.

And even where homosexual conduct is not explicitly criminalized, the law may be applied in a discriminatory manner to persecute and punish people perceived as being gay or lesbian as well as those who dress in a manner that challenges gender stereotypes.

We also know from experience that discriminatory laws reinforce and lend legitimacy to discriminatory attitudes at a popular level. If the State treats some people as second class, or second rate, or, worse, criminals, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, it invites members of the public to do the same. The result is an alarming and deeply entrenched pattern of violence and discrimination directed at people who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

For many years, discussion of these serious human rights challenges was kept off the formal agenda of the United Nations inter-governmental bodies. For many States, issues of sexuality and gender identity arouse cultural, religious and political sensitivities. We still hear objections that international human rights instruments are silent on these matters and that it is up to States to develop their own approaches in line with prevailing cultural, religious and traditional values.

But gradually, awareness has gown. Gradually, States are coming to see that the commitments to eliminate discrimination enshrined in the Universal Declaration and in our core United Nations human rights treaties apply to everyone, not just heterosexuals but gays and lesbians and bisexual, transgender and intersex people too.

The United Nations human rights treaty bodies – the Committees of experts, selected by States and tasked with monitoring State compliance with international human rights treaties – have led the way.

The Human Rights Committee, for example – which is the body that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – has repeatedly confirmed that States that are party to the Covenant are under a legal obligation not only to decriminalize homosexuality but to prohibit by law any discrimination based on sexual orientation.

That fundamental principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation as well as gender identity has been affirmed by other UN treaty bodies dealing with other areas of human rights law—from economic, social and cultural rights, to children’s rights, women’s rights and torture.

Moreover, in the course of their human rights investigative work, UN human rights special rapporteurs have documented hundreds of individual cases of violence and discrimination against LGBT people – and we know, from information available from other sources, that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

A year ago, almost to the day, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in this building at an event organized by many of the same States and organizations behind today’s event, launched an appeal for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and an end to violence and discrimination against LGBT people. He said, and I quote:
“As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity … Let there be no confusion, where there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day.”  [End of quotation].

It marked a turning point. Over the past year, the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Righty, Navi Pillay, have continued to work to convince Governments of the need for change. And we have seen an unprecedented and continuing mobilization involving civil society activists and human rights defenders in countries around the world.

In June this year, we saw the adoption of the first UN resolution specifically on LGBT rights. Human Rights Council resolution 17/19 expresses “grave concern” at violence and discrimination directed at individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to prepare a study documenting these violations in all regions.

That study, which will be the first ever official UN report to deal comprehensively with the issue of homophobic violence and discrimination, will be available in the coming weeks. Its findings and recommendations will be discussed at a special three-hour event at the Human Rights Council in March 2012.

The fact that a report of this kind is being published is in itself a sign of progress at the United Nations, and a reflection of growing awareness globally of the seriousness and legitimacy of concern about the treatment of LGBT people. I hope it will provide a basis for constructive dialogue, including with States who have until now been reticent about engaging in discussion of this issue.

And if ever there was an issue where dialogue is needed it is surely this one. For while an increasing number of States acknowledge violence and discrimination against LGBT people as a serious human rights challenge and are starting to take action domestically to tackle the problem, there remains a sizable number that adamantly refuse either to recognize that a problem exists or that international human rights standards apply.

If we cannot bridge the divide, we risk seeing a continuing process of polarization, with greater equality for some LGBT people living in countries that commit to tackling the problem, but increased risk of arrest, attack and persecution for millions of other living elsewhere.

To illustrate the point: just in the past few months, for example, as LGBT human rights defenders have been celebrating advances in Argentina, Australia and the U.S., retrograde draft laws have been proposed in several other countries that would, if enacted, lengthen prison sentences for those convicted of homosexuality-related offences, and in some cases make it a criminal offense to even talk about homosexuality or homophobic discrimination in public.

States have debated about how to achieve equal rights ever since the Universal Declaration was adopted, 63 years ago. It will take time to convince those who for a variety of reasons take the view that discrimination against LGBT people is something that lies beyond the reach of international human rights law.

The debate needs to unfold both between countries and within them: in rooms like this one, certainly, but also in national parliaments and courthouses; and, just as importantly, in workplaces, classrooms, newsrooms, family homes and other places where social attitudes are continuously being reshaped.

In the long-term, it is through education and information that equality and non-discrimination will prevail, and through the vigorous efforts of human rights defenders and advocates at the community level.

And here I am going to leave it and look forward to hearing from our other speakers who are well placed to tell us about their experiences and their share their insights.

Thank you very much.