G20, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ

RIGHTS: Fight Against Homophobia Moves to World Stage

Rajiv Fernando

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 6 2007 (IPS) - On Aug. 9, as South Africans celebrated National Women’s Day, which marks the 51st anniversary of women’s resistance to the apartheid-era pass system restricting free movement, three lesbians were brutally murdered in two separate incidents.

A rainbow flag symbolising LGBT rights flies in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Jaume d&#39Urgell

A rainbow flag symbolising LGBT rights flies in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Jaume d'Urgell

Although authorities refused to speculate on whether the women’s sexual orientation was a factor, one of them, Sizakele Sigasa, was openly lesbian and an activist for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’s rights.

The case, which drew international condemnation from human and gay rights groups, is emblematic of a global culture of intolerance and often outright violence toward sexual minorities, activists say.

Seventy-seven countries have laws on the books penalising homosexuality, and in seven countries – Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Nigeria – homosexuality can incur the death penalty.

Last month, the South Korean cabinet dropped language from a proposed anti-discrimination bill that that extended protection to sexual orientation, under pressure from a coalition of Christian right members of the National Assembly.

In Uganda, members of President Yoweri Museveni’s government have called for enforcement of the country’s draconian sodomy law, which punishes consensual same-sex acts with up to life in prison, and have reportedly threatened to pass new laws expanding the reach of punishment.

And the list goes on. Boris Dittrich, advocacy director for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS: “Those countries that have penalised homosexuality are really a target for us because criminalisation of homosexuality leads to discrimination.”

In November 2006, a distinguished group of 29 human rights experts from 25 countries met in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to develop a broad range of human rights standards and discuss their application to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The so-called Yogyakarta Principles spell out concrete steps for governments and other parties to end violence, abuse, and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and ensure full equality.

In a bid to publicise the principles and encourage their adoption by U.N. member states, activists and government representatives from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay sponsored a recent discussion here that brought together civil society groups, U.N. experts and diplomats from 20 countries, plus the European Commission and the Holy See.

Dittrich, who moderated the Nov. 7 event, said: “Our hope was that a lot of missions, representatives and governments would attend the introduction of the Yogyakarta Principles to the U.N. system in New York. Our goal was to introduce the Yogyakarta Principles to as many government representatives as possible.”

Next Monday, the U.N. and the world community will celebrate a landmark achievement – the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948. However, almost 60 years later, basic human rights are far from reality for the millions of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT).

Human Rights Watch and other groups cite ongoing abuses, including rape, extrajudicial executions, torture, medical abuses, repression of free speech and assembly and discrimination in work, health, education, housing, access to justice and immigration.

Speaking in Portuguese at the U.N. event, Ana Lucy Cabral, director of the Department for Human Rights and Social Issues of the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, reaffirmed the commitment of her government to fighting discrimination on all grounds.

Cabral said that the Brazilian government has been working with LGBT civil society groups to develop a national programme called “Brazil without homophobia”, and will host a public policy conference in 2008 to promote its goals of acceptance and equality.

In the United States, a progressive step in the right direction was made several weeks ago by Governor Jennifer Granholm of the state of Michigan. Granholm issued an order that bars discrimination against state workers based on their “gender identity or expression”, and protects the rights of those who behave, dress or identify as members of the opposite sex.

The resolution outlines that “State employment practices and procedures that encourage non-discriminatory and equal employment practices provide desirable models for the private sector and local governments.”

Sean Kosofsky, director of policy at the Triangle Foundation, a Michigan-based organisation serving the GLBT and allied communities, said the governor’s decision was critical.

“It creates a climate in state government and in the state as a whole that transgender people are welcome and valuable to the workforce and to our community,” Kosofsky told IPS. “It will allow some to bring all of who they are to work and not fear retribution for being who they are.”

According to Kosofsky, in most of the United States, it is still legal to fire GLBT people and in 49 of 50 states, they cannot marry, so many people from the GLBT community lose out on the 1,138 benefits and rights that married people enjoy.

Kosofsky enthusiastically endorsed the Yogyakarta Principles. He said, “The tone and content seem to command respect and integrity. Increasingly the world is treating GLBT people as an oppressed group that need protections. This looks like a great set of guidelines for basic global cultural competency on GLBT rights and equality.”

In a statement read at the meeting, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, stressed that: “Human rights principles by definition apply to all of us, simply by virtue of having been born human.”

“Just as it would be unthinkable to exclude some from their protection on the basis of race, religion or social status, so to must we reject any attempt to do on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity…excluding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons from equal protection violates international human rights law as well the common standards of humanity that define us all,” she said.

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