Monday, February 27, 2012

Walking Out on Human Rights

In ten days from now the United Nations will set aside thee hours to discuss the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

With so much in the western news on LGBT rights at the moment, it’s worth noting what this panel could have been about.  "Same-sex marriage", perhaps - a topic fought over in a few jurisdictions around the world, with recent developments in the United States and Brazil.  But it's not.  "Granting partnership rights to same sex couples", maybe - after all, it's a somewhat less controversial topic actively considered in many other regions.  But it isn't.

No.  This is a panel discussion on the application of human rights law to address incidents of violence, discriminatory laws and discriminatory practices against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity  - looking at things such as the criminality of homosexuality and violence carried out on LGBT people.  People like the gay girl in Cape Town who was "correctively" raped by men in her community.  Or like the two men in Iran sentenced to death simply for being with the person they love.  Basic human rights.  Fundamental human rights.  Rights to a private life.  To bodily integrity.  To life itself.

This panel has not been forced on the countries of the developing world by the "west".  The Panel is sponsored by Brazil and South Africa with the strong support of many other countries, including Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay.  55% of countries voting – and from all continents - voted in favour of the panel.

Nor is the panel composed of fringe progressives.  It will include a message from UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, a presentation UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and other respected human rights experts from Pakistan, Brazil, the United States and Sweden.

Despite the basic, impeachable level at which this panel operates, as it starts its discussion on Wednesday 7th March 2012, it is expected that up to half of the countries present will walk out of the room in protest.

They will argue that their culture is different.  They will say that their values are incompatible with this discussion.  They will point out that the world contains diverse views.

To some extent they will be right.

Cultures are different.  Values do vary.  People do hold different views.

But no matter how different we are, we should not forget what unites us.  We are all human beings, and all human beings have human rights.

In 1948, 48 governments of the world came together and declared that all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights.  Signed opposite the Eiffel Tower in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris - the city where the principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood first took hold - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the foundation on which we, the world's people in all our diversity, work to build communities that are fair and respectful of all.

As the Human Rights Council works to improve the protection of these fundamental principles of humanity, let's remember that LGBT rights are human rights.

Zoliswa Nkonyana, the girl from Cape Town, has a human right to live free from the fear of violation.  Thankfully South Africa has taken action to see that it is addressed.  Hamzeh Chavi and Loghman Hamzehpour, the two young men from Sardasht in Iran who fell in love, had human rights to live a private life and not have their lives taken from them.  The Iranian government, far from remedying the situation continues to enforce its laws against gays and lesbians.

There will be times to talk about same sex marriages and protection for domestic partners.  Those debates are happening already in many places around the world.  Many more will join soon, but others are nowhere near to having those discussions.  Let's talk about the absolute basics - the fundamentals - in the meantime.

Countries will stand up and walk out of the council chamber on 7th March, and they will be walking away from the basic principles of humanity.

I hope they stay.  I hope they listen.  And I hope, whatever happens, that maybe this discussion will be the start of change.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Good week or bad week?

It's been a great week for the human rights of LGBT folk with both a federal court of appeal win on the Proposition 8 case in San Francisco, and also the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Washington State by legislators in Olympia.  This is so exciting and important!  So much progress has been made on so many fronts.

But I can't help thinking that it's been a bad week too, and a bad week in places where things are bad already.

Fly across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco or Olympia and you get to Indonesia where the human rights of LGBT citizens are impacted this week by the blocking of the website of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.  In a case of apparent state censorship, it is being listed as "pornographic".  I can confirm that you should feel free to click on their website in front of your grandma.  This organization is dedicated to human rights advocacy on behalf of people who experience discrimination or abuse on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.  While Indonesia is not the worst place for LGBT people - it has not, for example, criminalized same-sex sexual activity (other than in the strongly Muslim province of Aceh) - that's about as good as it gets for the millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the world's fourth largest country.  There is no protection against discrimination, no protection for same-sex couples, and traditional Indonesian society finds LGBT practices abhorrent.  So there's a lot to do.  These days Indonesia is in many wonderful ways a shining beacon of democracy in South-East Asia.  But the censorship of an organization working to protect the rights of some of its vulnerable citizens fundamentally undermines basic democratic principles.

Fly a few thousand miles to the west across the Indian Ocean, and things get truly awful.  The anti-gay bill is back on the table in Kampala.  Shelved after some parliamentary floor-time last year, the first draft of the legislation infamously contained a provision for the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.  Although that specific provision is now removed there remains clause after clause of legislated hate.  You only have to read its provisions to realise how truly horrifying it is.  This is law-making at its most hideous.  Thankfully, the efforts to push through this odious piece of legislation are being widely reported in the international press and almost universally condemned.  But it remains a popular piece of legislation in many quarters in Uganda, and Kampala is no place to be gay.

Homosexuality is already illegal there, and this is a country where the government routinely threatens lesbians and gays.  A Ugandan radio station was fined $1,000 and forced to issue a public apology after hosting homosexuals on a live talk show, and an LGBT rights activist - David Kato - was murdered shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed.

Thankfully there are real people on the ground in Uganda fighting for change, receiving international support as the world stands in solidarity with them.

So, was it a good week, or a bad week?

Congratulations San Francisco!  Well done, Olympia!  But let's not forget Jakarta.  And Kampala.