United Nations – Sixty-one years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sexual orientation and gender identity still pose a threat to the dignity and sovereignty of individuals around the world.
The United Nations, commemorating Human Rights Day last week, focused on the continued discrimination against gays and lesbians worldwide.
This subject was also the basis of a panel discussion, hosted Thursday by the permanent missions to the United Nations of Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
The panellists included human rights activists from Honduras, India, the Philippines, Uganda and Zambia – representing a microcosm of the international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and experience.
Vivek Divan, a human rights activist and a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who is also a self-declared homosexual, was criminalised in India by a law enacted in the nineteenth century under British colonial rule that made consensual non-procreative sex between adults of the same or opposite sexes illegal.
It was only in July of this year that Divan was exonerated, and the High Court of Delhi passed a judgement declaring that the archaic law was in violation of the rights of liberty, equality, dignity, privacy and health of Indian citizens.
Divan said it was imperative that the negative mythology surrounding homosexuality be debunked expeditiously for the health and safety of society.
“Homosexual behaviour has existed in human kind and in all cultures since time immemorial,” said Divan, “But better understanding of human behaviour has demonstrated that it is a phenomenon that does not deserve a criminal sanction of the law, for it has not in any way caused harm to others.”
“Criminalisation also does not rid society of homosexuality, instead it only serves to push it underground where it continues to manifest in ways that are likely to be far more deleterious towards society,” continued Divan, referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and to human social relations.
Sass Rogando Sasot another activist, and a founding member of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines, challenged the audience to consider the roots of homosexual oppression and transsexual discrimination.
“The root of our oppression rests in the belief that there is only one way to be male or female,” said Sasot. “This is a belief that leads to attacks on our physical and mental integrities.”
“This is the belief that keeps the list of transgendered people being harassed, killed and violated growing year after,” said Sasot.
In October of this year, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed to the Ugandan parliament, and is still under review.
The bill proposes to convict any individual “who commits the act of homosexuality,” to imprison Ugandan citizens who fail to report persons they know to be homosexual to the authorities, and to punish those who act in support of their human rights.
Victor Mukasa, the Ugandan panellist and activist working as a Programme Associate at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), and a co-founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), described his experience facing systematic abuse in Uganda.
“My life as a homosexual and transgender person in Uganda has already been very hectic, very uncomfortable,” Mukasa told IPS, “And I have been fearful living in my own country.”
“If you know some of the events that have taken place in Uganda I have been really attacked by my government, events that even lead me to sue the Ugandan government,” Mukasa said. “Because of everything that was happening, Uganda is no longer a safe place for me.”
Also at the panel discussion, Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia who is project director for Political Research Associates (PRA) in Massachusetts, presented the group’s new report, “Globalising the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia.”
Kaoma said that many anti-LGBT attitudes across Africa are fuelled by U.S. groups actively “exporting homophobia.” He called on U.S. religious figures who have been promoting hatred and fear of homosexuality in Africa to denounce the Ugandan bill. Kaoma also urged them to make such declarations in Africa, not just before U.S. audiences.
It was a positive moment for the United Nations to hold this panel in favour of the LGBT community on Human Rights day.
But, it was not until December of 2008 that the subject of LGBT rights was actively discussed in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
It was Bruce Knotts, the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UUUNO) and an Executive Board member of the United Nations Department of Public Information/Non Govern-mental Organizations (NGO/DPI) who brought up the subject of LGBT rights at the annual conference of the NGO/DPI.
The meeting was held in Paris to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Knotts said it would be unacceptable to host a human rights conference, without addressing LGBT rights.
The Committee on NGOs, (CoNGO) a committee which puts NGOs in dialogue with the United Nations – of which the UUUNO is a member holding consultative status – gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organisations are significantly underrepresented.
Currently there are no U.S. LGBT organisations that have consultative status within CoNGOs, and there are only a handful of Dutch LGBT organisations that have gained consultative status recently as a result of a strong lobbying effort on the part of the Dutch government, according to Knotts.
“The good news has been that other NGOs have been able to break through and get accredited and they have been providing a voice,” Scott Long, the Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch told IPS.
COC Netherlands, the oldest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender organisation in the world was accredited last year.
Knotts agrees LGBT organisations are gaining momentum. “IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, had a pending application for consultative status for years, and we may be at a point where they’ll get accepted,” he told IPS. “If so, that would make IGLHRC the first U.S. LGBT organisation to gain status.”