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Summary of Panel Discussion on the Yogyakarta Principles

The Application of International Law in Relation to Issues of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity


This panel discussion was organized to promote the release of the Yogyakarta Principles at UN Headquarters. The discussion was moderated by Boris Dittrich, Advocacy Director, LGBT Program, Human Rights Watch. The panelists were:

  • Mary Robinson, founder of Realizing Rights, the Ethical Globalization Initiative, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Signatory to the Yogyakarta Principles
  • Minister Ana Lucy Cabral, Director, Department for Human Rights and Social Issues, Ministry of External Relations, Brazil
  • Frederico Villegas Beltran, Director, Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Worship, Argentina
  • Dianela Pi, First Secretary, Third Committee, Permanent Mission of Uruguay
  • Miriam Maluwa, UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Jamaica, the Bahamas and Cuba
  • Philip Dayle, Legal Officer, International Commission of Jurists
  • Sonia Onufer Correa, Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association and Sexuality Policy Watch. Signatory to the Yogyakarta Principles
  • Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director, New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
    • The event was sponsored by the following Permanent Missions to the UN: Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It was held from 1:15 until 2:40pm, parallel to the session of the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.

      The NGOs who organized the panel discussion were:
      Arc International, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Global Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, International Lesbian and Gay Association, and International Service for Human Rights.

      The event was attended by over 100 people with standing room only. The following Permanent Missions were represented at the event: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Guyana, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United Kingdom, Uruguay and USA. The European Commission and the Holy See were also represented, along with NGOs and others working to promote and protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people. Several journalists attended the meeting.

      Panel discussion

      The moderator opened the event by giving an overview of the Yogyakarta Principles (the Principles), which articulate existing international human rights law and principles as they apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people. The Principles were developed one year ago by a distinguished group of human rights experts from diverse backgrounds and countries. The Principles collate and clarify current State obligations under international law to address human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Each Principle is accompanied by detailed recommendations to States, as well as other actors, including the UN human rights system, national human rights institutions, the media, NGOs and funders. The Principles capture where international human rights law and jurisprudence are now, and it is intended that they will need to be updated to reflect additional obligations as human rights law continues to evolve.

      Mary Robinson opened the meeting with an acknowledgement that she is a proud signatory of the Principles. They address a core human rights issue that has long been neglected by the UN human rights system and governments. To demonstrate the gaps and omissions in international and national law, she referred to her own experience as a human rights lawyer in Ireland, as President of Ireland, and then as High Commissioner for Human Rights. She acknowledged the significant contribution of Michael O’Flaherty to the development of the Principles, and concluded by noting it was appropriate that they were being launched at UN Headquarters – 'not before time'.

      Ana Lucy Cabral, Director of the Department for Human Rights and Social Issues of the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, reaffirmed the commitment of her government to fighting discrimination on all grounds. The Principles are an important document and needed to improve the lives of LGBT people all over the world. The Brazilian Government has worked with LGBT civil society groups to develop a national program to combat homophobia called 'Brazil without homophobia', and will host a public policy conference in 2008 to promote this program. Brazil recognizes the invaluable role of NGOs in informing government policy on LGBT issues, as well as promoting the Principles. The government strives for a true democracy where people from all diversities will leave peacefully together with respect for each others human rights, and this goal also shapes Brazil's foreign policy. Madam Cabrail concluded by welcoming the timely release of the Principles, and advising that her government will publish them in Portuguese.

      Federico Villegas Beltrán, Director of Human Rights at Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Worship, noted that his country has developed an active foreign policy on LGBT issues. Although discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is particularly complex, he emphasized that respect for the human rights of all people is integral to a just and democratic society. He referred to Argentina’s work to encourage the Human Rights Council to consider all violations of human rights, including the rights of LGBT people. Mr. Beltran acknowledged his country's history of human rights violations, but emphasized that Argentina is now committed to the protection of human rights. He pointed to the development in 2004 of a National Action Plan (NAP) for non-discrimination as one example of this commitment. Independent experts developed the NAP which contains more than 200 specific proposals to eradicate discrimination (including repealing regional/local codes prohibiting same-sex unions). He noted that many of the issues addressed by the Principles are also the focus of the NAP, and it was adopted by the government without amendment. He concluded his remarks with a call to stop using the words 'tolerance' and 'intolerance' in relation to the rights of LGBT people. The dictionary definition suggests that 'tolerance ' of these rights would mean we are 'suffering with patience' – which we are not. As an alternative, he encouraged the use of the phrase 'respect for diversity' wherever possible.

      Dianela Pi, representing Uruguay, noted that her government is currently analyzing the Principles, but fully supports the spirit of the document. Uruguay has consistently supported initiatives within the Commission on Human Rights, and its successor body, the Human Rights Council that have sought to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and to promote the rights of LGBT people. Nonetheless, Madam Pi acknowledged that Uruguay still has many problems to overcome in this respect, and the Principles are an important document to assist her government. The government has set up a commission on discrimination to propose national policies to combat racism, xenophobia, and discrimination, in which LGBT issues will be addressed. At the 9th meeting of the MERCOSUR working group focused on sexual orientation, Uruguay put the Principles on the agenda.

      Miriam Maluwa, UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Jamaica, the Bahamas and Cuba shared some of the conclusions of their work that has addressed the inter-relationship between human rights and HIV/AIDS. Their research shows that sex between men occurs everywhere, and many men also have sex with women. Criminalizing same sex relationships forces these relationships underground and encourages people to actively avoid healthcare options and treatment, thereby increasing the health risk across the entire community. In addition to adversely affecting the right to health, the criminalization of these relationships is wrong in law because it undermines peoples' ability to enjoy other human rights. Yet in 2005 some 70 countries still criminalized these types of relationships. She referenced the Human Rights Committee’s finding that the criminalization of homosexual activities is not an effective method of addressing HIV/AIDS. She also referenced the non-binding U.N. International Guidelines on HIV/AIDs. The UNAIDS Governing Board has called for the development of programs targeted at key affected groups and populations, including 'men having sex with men', describing this as 'one of the essential policy actions for HIV prevention'. UNAIDS supports the Principles.

      Philip Dayle from the International Commission of Jurists provided an overview of recent developments in jurisprudence on human rights law related to LGBT issues. Various UN bodies have referred to 'sexual orientation' as a self identified category of non-discrimination, including ECOSOC, Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and UN Human Rights Committee. The Principles incorporate these developments and provide 'an authoritative interpretation of applicable international human rights law.' There is now a challenge for legislators, judges, lawyers and activists to put the Principles into practice at both the domestic and international levels, and to use them to positively impact on people's everyday lives.

      Sonia Correa from the Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association and Sexuality Policy Watch discussed the Principles in the Brazilian historical context. She outlined the fight against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity that has been waged, noting that in recent years, social dialogue has opened up in her country, enabling LGBT networks to gain greater visibility. However even today, discrimination against LGBT people is prevalent in family and social networks. There is still a lot of work to be done, and it is a question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. The Principles are important for Brazil because they validate the public policy fight that remains ongoing. Madam Correa noted that some 2,000 copies of the Principles have been distributed in Portuguese, and Brazilian lawyers have held a seminar to examine the Principles.

      Craig Mohkiber, OHCHR, commended the outstanding initiative and all those involved in developing the Principles. He concurred with earlier speakers noting that although LGBT rights are core human rights, they have been neglected. He was very proud of the fact that nearly half of the signatories to the Principles are human rights experts involved in the UN human rights system – which indicates that there is wide spread recognition within the UN that it has considerable work to do on this front. He underlined that the Principles are not only normative, but have a highly practical use. He then read a statement from Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights.

      The High Commissioner's statement emphasized that just as it would be unthinkable to deny anyone their human rights because of their race, religion or social status, we must also reject any attempt to do so on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Principles are a timely reminder of these basic tenets. States have a legal obligation to investigate and prosecute all instances of violence and abuse with respect to every person under their jurisdiction. In her view, respect for cultural diversity is insufficient to justify the existence of laws that violate the fundamental right to life, security and privacy by criminalizing harmless private relations between consenting adults. The High Commissioner reiterated the firm commitment of her Office to promote and protect the human rights of all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

      The moderator also noted the receipt of a letter of support for the meeting from the President of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights, Mr Michael Cashman. The European Parliament’s Intergroup endorses the Principles and wishes the organizers the very best in their efforts to raise awareness about them amongst the world’s governments.

      Audience comments and questions

      The Permanent Mission of Chile said her government was analyzing the Principles keenly, but facing difficulties with Principle 24 regarding the right to found a family. She asked for advice on key arguments to use to promote this principle, specifically regarding adoption and artificial insemination.

      Sonia Correa agreed it is a controversial principle, but responded that the right to constitute a family is articulated in international law and applies to all. (Unlike the right to marriage, the right to found a family is not defined in binary sex terms) The drafters of the Principles consciously chose not to incorporate the right to marriage in the Principles. She also suggested taking note of the reforms that have been achieved in other conservative societies in Latin America, which have shown a degree of pragmatism in relation to adoption policies and access to pensions and other benefits for same sex couples. Such reforms first require the establishment of a dialogue between LGBT and conservative groups, and these discussions can begin on basic rights, like non-discrimination and the right to privacy.

      Philip Dayle added that the Principles are an 'authoritative interpretation' of international human right law, not an aspirational document. If they were the latter, they probably would include right to marry. This does not preclude the fact that other obligations may evolve as human rights law evolves, and this would necessitate an update of the Yogyakarta Principles.

      The Permanent Mission of the Netherlands thanked the organizers for the timely meeting. The representative noted that the previous day her government had introduced a whitepaper into the Parliament and had used the Principles to formulate the section dealing with LGBT issues. The representative asked for any tips on how to use the Principles nationally as well as in foreign policy.

      The French delegate expressed support for the thrust of the Principles but noted that LGBT organizations are suffering discrimination at the UN. He asked how the Principles can be used to help address this issue. A couple members of the panel recalled that some LGBT organizations are currently ECOSOC observers, and a representative of the UK Mission advised that her government is currently a member of the ECOSOC NGO Committee, and would be pleased to assist any LGBT organizations that are experiencing difficulty with their application for ECOSOC accreditation.

      The representative of Transgender Europe showed his German passport and said he needed to prove that he was sterilized in order to obtain it. This was an example from the past, but there are still many countries which have sterilization requirements. He asked the OHCHR what can be done about that. OHCHR suggested that the human rights complaint mechanisms would provide a good starting point.

      A discussion followed about the importance of transforming the Principles into a tool that will directly assist LGBT people in their everyday lives. A representative from the Brazilian LGBT Association and International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) noted that the Principles were created by international legal experts, but that they needed to be made accessible to LGBT people who are not lawyers. Cynthia Rothschild (Center for Women’s Global Leadership) added that the experience of human rights violations in the LGBT community is not 'monolithic'. It is important that the diversity of experience of discrimination is acknowledged and appropriate and responsive strategies developed to implement the Principles.

      The moderator advised that one of the next steps in the project is the development of an activist tool for both governments and NGOs, to assist in the implementation of the Principles.

      Concluding remarks

      The moderator called on governments from around the world to use the Principles as widely as possible. They could be referenced in public statements, used in law and policy development at the national level, and applied as a tool to evaluate the national legal framework. The objective is to improve the lives of so many people who suffer from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and to grant them their rights that have been denied for too long.

      The meeting thanked the volunteer Portuguese, Spanish and English translators who helped make the event meaningful for all.

      The audience was reminded that the Principles are available at in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

      The meeting closed at 2:40pm.

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