U.N. urged to confront rising tide of homophobia

UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 18 – Nearly two years after the Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity was proposed to the United Nations General Assembly, many civil society groups say that little has been done to safeguard the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people around the world.

In a perverse commemoration of the U.N.’s failure to adopt the declaration, the past two months have witnessed a wave of homophobia across the United States, which has led to nine teen suicides and countless hate crimes.

Charles Radcliffe, a spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told IPS that the High Commissioner was “deeply saddened to read of the teenagers who reportedly took their own lives following relentless homophobic bullying and taunting by their peers at school or in their communities.”

“Denying human rights to individuals based on their identity carries a terrible price,” Radcliffe said. “Every human being is born equal in dignity and worth. OHCHR is committed to working for equal rights for everyone, not dependent on their sexual orientation or gender identity, but on their humanity.”

On May 17, 2008, the International Day Against Homophobia, a group of states representing all five U.N. regions drew up a joint statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, the most comprehensive of its kind to be brought before the General Assembly.

The statement, initiated by France and delivered by Argentina, reflected decades of struggle in achieving universal human rights for LGBTI people, including the U.N. World Conference on Women in Mexico City (1975), the U.N. Resolution on Extrajudicial Executions (2000) and the Brazilian Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Human Rights (2003-2005).

Based on the principle of universality, the statement called for worldwide decriminalisation of homosexuality as well as an end to torture, arbitrary arrest and violence towards LGBTI people. It was submitted to the General Assembly on Dec. 18, 2008, but despite the support of 66 member states, the statement was not adopted as an official U.N. Declaration, due largely to vehement opposition from a coalition of 57 member-states headed by Syria.

Today, over a year after the statement was rejected, LGBTI people are more vulnerable than ever to expressions of homophobia.

“Every day, around the world, people are discriminated against, vilified, physically attacked, even killed, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Radcliffe told IPS. “In more than 70 countries, homosexuality carries criminal sanctions, exposing individuals to the constant threat of arrest, detention and, in some cases, torture or death.”

Advocates say the string of recent tragedies in the United States is a portent of what we can expect if countries do not take a unified, unshakable stance on the issue.

“This is not a gay issue or a straight issue, it is everyone’s issue and we ask everyone to stand with us and demand that this violence end,” said Sharon Stapel, executive director of New York’s Anti-Violence Project (AVP).

AVP has reported extensively on what the group describes as an “epidemic” of suicides, as well as on several brutal hate crimes that have scarred the social fabric of New York City.

“We are outraged and horrified,” Stapel said in a press release on Oct. 8. “This violence is unacceptable. In these past few weeks we have seen increasingly disturbing attacks against LGBT people simply for being who they are.”

IPS spoke with Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which recently gained accreditation with the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council.

A tireless fighter for the cause of human rights, IGLHRC is committed to finding a global solution to global manifestations of hatred.

“The kind of bullying, discrimination, and violence that LGBT and other youth face in the U.S. has its own versions in countries throughout the world,” Johnson told IPS. “In Uganda and Cameroon, girls who act too masculine have been beaten up by other students and kicked out of school by administrators.”

“Jose Garcia, a Belizean teenager, was ordered to withdraw from school by the principal because ‘he acts like a girl’. In Pakistan, parents refuse to pay school fees for their children who are gender transgressive. The ugly treatment that queer kids face – and the obvious consequences – is a global outrage,” Johnson said.

“Governments are committed through human rights law to respect and protect the human rights of everyone – regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression – and it is in spaces like the United Nations that governments must be reminded of this obligation and held to account when it is violated,” he added.

This is a strong message to countries like the United States which endorsed the joint statement a year after its presentation, but continue to witness some of the most heinous displays of homophobia in the world.

“While each of these incidents is its own private tragedy for the family and friends of the individuals involved, the loss of these young men – some of them just boys – also challenges us to live up to universal principles of equality and non-discrimination,” Radcliffe told IPS. (IPS/GIN)