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UN shows its heart’s in the right place

December 13, 2010

On Friday, Human Rights Day, I was privileged to go to New York City to attend the United Nations’ panel on ending violence against and decriminalizing the behavior of LGBT folks. The event was organized by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a very worthy organization, and in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I’m an on-call volunteer translator for them.

Labeled a “high-level panel,” it was an amazing event filled with very notable speakers including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice; Desmond Tutu (in a pre-recorded video address); many other ambassadors and officials; and several activists fighting for their rights at the ground level and against serious, institutional opposition. Check IGLHRC’s website for complete transcripts of all the speeches made that day and a video.

It’s easy for we LGBT Americans to worry about the struggles we face every day, but much of it—and certainly my personal experience—pales in comparison to the troubles of people like Civil Society speaker Linda Baumann, the interim director of Out-Right Namibia.

Here’s part of her speech, which I found very moving. It’s a long quote but well worth reading:

I sit here in front of  you representing a movement of  sexually and gender diverse people from my continent, “Africa,” whose lives are in danger. We are people who live in fear, people who are denounced from our families, who have school fees and support withdrawn, people who cannot freely express themselves and feel good about themselves, all due to the prejudice, stigma and discrimination that we face because of  the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.

What harm do we cause to our immediate families, communities and our nations at-large? What harm am I causing to you all sitting here that could defer the developments of  our national states?

It hurts to know that in my continent, the mere mention of  my identity will mean that my right to privacy is infringed and that my private life will be questioned by the government. The dominance of  heteronormativity, sanctions me to limited rights just because I do not conform.

The future of  lives is dependent on the current leadership, but with recent developments it’s clear that the loss of  lives will increase in the years to come.I call upon all member states to respect the universality of  human rights and passionately work to protect all of their diverse citizens.

Along with the three activists’ talks, I was also struck by the strong language of the ambassadors and other officials. Secretary General Ban, for instance, was unequivocal in his support for LGBT rights and his recognition of the current global political situation:

Today, many nations have modern constitutions that guarantee essential rights and liberties. And yet, homosexuality is considered a crime in more than 70 countries. This is not right. Yes, we recognize that social attitudes run deep. Yes, social change often comes only with time.Yet let there be no confusion: Where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day. Personal disapproval–even society’s disapproval–is no excuse to arrest, detain, imprison, harass or torture anyone–ever.

U.S. Ambassador Rice enumerated the steps we’ve taken in this country on LGBT rights since President Obama took office, and even though I’ve often frustrated by the slow pace of his administration, it was an admittedly long list. And to her credit, she acknowledged that plenty of work remains on that front. “The story of my country is, in part, a story of the expanding boundaries of rights and dignity—of the way that discrimination and prejudice have been countered by acceptance and equality,” she said.

“As we can never forget, change comes from human agency. It comes from people—like the human rights defenders with us here today—people who refuse to give up and who refuse to move to the back of the bus. It comes from the leaders, the activists, and the ordinary men and women who believe that all human beings have equal worth, equal dignity, equal consequence—and equal rights,” she added.

Rice also announced the U.S. would push for a standalone resolution to add back in a reference to sexual orientation that was removed in November from a committee’s resolution against extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions. An astonishing 79 countries voted last month to remove the reference, including well-known LGBT oppressors like Egypt and Uganda and more surprising countries like South Africa, where same-sex marriage is legal even though the LGBT community still faces a great deal of resistance.

Discussion of that resolution and its associated amendments made up a decent portion of the speeches that day, and it wasn’t lost on me that it’s all a matter of semantics. Even if the U.S. and other countries do manage to add the reference back in, the resolution, like this event, will be purely symbolic. But it’s far too easy to overlook the power of symbolic gestures; let’s not forget how much it stings to have your relationship considered equivalent to a straight couple’s but still labeled differently. Words matter.

Let me end with another statement from SG Ban, one that made it into my notebook because it struck such a chord with me:

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.

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