(New York) – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at a celebration for International Human Rights Day, emphasized that human rights are universal and apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people along with everyone else. The event was held on December 11, 2012, at the UN in New York.
“The very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,’” Ban said in a speech opening the event. “All human beings – not some, not most, but all. No one gets to decide who is entitled to human rights and who is not.”
The event, “Leadership in the Fight against Homophobia,” was organized by Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission together with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Permanent Missions to the UN of Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, the European Union, France, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the United States.
“Ban Ki-moon wholeheartedly denounced homophobia and transphobia and called for decriminalization of homosexual conduct,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “What makes his speech profound is that he vehemently criticized so called ‘anti-propaganda’ bills, which criminalize public discussion of homosexuality. Such draft bills are being discussed in the parliaments of Ukraine and Russia and should be rejected immediately.” The hall in the UN Building was packed with hundreds of attendees, who watched a video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The event included statements by two well-known singers, Ricky Martin, and Yvonne Chaka-Chaka of South Africa, who closed the program with a song.
Jessica Stern, executive director at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, honored three international human rights defenders who took part in the program.
“The voices of Human Rights Defenders Olena Shevchenko (Ukraine), Blas Radi (Argentina), and Gift Trapence (Malawi) are a clarion call to all – to UN diplomats, world leaders, activists, and every day people – that we cannot compromise on human rights,” Stern said. “We are all born equals and human rights must be equal for everyone, everywhere. No more, no less.”
Shevchenko, a leading LGBT human rights defender from Ukraine, organized a peaceful demonstration on December 8 against the “propaganda of homosexuality” bill that was passed in the first reading in Ukrainian Parliament in October. Police stopped the protesters from marching and charged Shevchenko with “repeatedly violating the order of conducting protests.” Shevchenko appeared in court in Kiev on December 13, upon returning to Kiev after the UN event, where she was found guilty and fined 850 hryvnas (approximately US$100). She said she is afraid that, if arrested again, she will face criminal charges.
“Homophobia is a disease of the lack of information and education,” Shevchenko said. “In Ukraine, the guise of homophobia hides the government's reluctance to give people freedom of choice of how they live their lives. We have to fight against homophobia with the same dedication as the fight for freedom of speech and information.”
In his speech, Ban applauded Argentina for introducing some of the most progressive legislation in the world on gender recognition. Radi helped bring about passage of the gender identity law, which was approved by the Argentinian Senate on May 8 and became effective on June 4.
“Argentina’s new gender identity law constitutes a turning point in trans people’s lives in Argentina,” Radi said. “This model legislation is the result of the collective work and dialogue of many trans activists and supporters. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share this important event with you so that it serves to impact future laws that better the quality of our collective lives.”
Ban referred to his visit to Malawi in 2010 where the then president, Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned a couple at Ban’s request. Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, had been sentenced to 14 years of hard labor for holding an engagement ceremony. The secretary-general said he hoped Malawians will take the opportunity to turn a page and end discrimination against LGBT people.
Trapence told the UN audience that under the new president, Joyce Banda, Malawi is weighing a possible change of the sodomy law and has for the time being stopped arresting people for loving someone of the same gender.
“Today’s event celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is important in sending a clear message to African governments, in terms of respecting human rights of all citizens including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” Trapence said. “It is not about demanding special rights, but basic human rights that our governments are supposed to honor.”
The French minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, participated in the panel discussion at the December 11 event. She reiterated that the French government is dedicated to the decriminalization of homosexual conduct worldwide.
Chaka-Chaka, the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and Roll Back Malaria, spoke in support of non-discrimination and tolerance. She said that living under the apartheid regime in South Africa had made her aware that discrimination, be it on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, is unacceptable.
Martin spoke about the pressure to stay in the closet and the relief he felt at coming out. He thanked the human rights defenders in the room for what they had done to ensure equality.
“I would like to thank … all the activists that are here today, that opened the doors of light to people like me and to families like mine,” he said. “Thank you so much for what you’ve done – I’ve done nothing.”
Ban’s words were particularly important, organizers of the event said.
“Let me say this loud and clear: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else,” Ban said. “They, too, are born free and equal. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggle for human rights.”