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Keynote address by Flavia Pansieri, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the panel "Human Rights for All: Protection and promotion of the human rights of LGBTI individuals - From local communities to global organizations"

20 November 2015

Distinguished panellists and guests,

I wish to thank the University of Geneva, the City of Geneva and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland for convening this important panel discussion.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". It does not say "some human beings" - everyone, without exception, must enjoy their effective protection and realization.

And yet, UN reports, including the most recent one that we presented to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, highlight pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and intersex persons in all regions of the world.

These reports make for chilling reading.

They tell of the sadistic murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, horrific rapes of lesbian and bisexual women, violent mob attacks, and the abuse of LGBT persons by police and prison officials.

They tell of criminal sanctions, arrest, imprisonment, blackmail and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or their gender expression.

They tell of treatments and surgeries forced on LGBT and intersex persons in medical settings - from electroshocks on gay men and lesbian women to try to change their sexual orientation, to the forced sterilization of transgender persons, to medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children to try to "fix" their sex.

They tell of the daily humiliation and discrimination faced by transgender persons who are denied recognition of their gender identity.

They tell of bullying of young children in schools, and the lack of protection they receive from the State because their families are not recognised as such.

They tell of LGBT and intersex persons fleeing death threats in their countries of origin only to be discriminated against in the asylum process.

They tell of people being fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, or refused medical treatment simply because of who they are, or whom they love.

These constitute human rights violations, often perpetrated with impunity, sometimes with the participation, complicity or inaction of State authorities, and with victims seldom having access to effective remedy for these violations.

But there is also good news: Thanks to the courageous and painstaking documentation and advocacy work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations working on this issue, more and more countries are taking steps at the national level and recognise the need to act collectively – including at the UN – to address the violations that LGBT and intersex people face.

In our recent report we highlight many of these positive initiatives: In the last four years, 14 countries have adopted or strengthened anti-discrimination and hate crime laws, three countries have abolished criminal sanctions for homosexuality, 12 have introduced marriage or civil unions for same sex couples, 10 have introduced reforms to facilitate the legal recognition of the gender identity of transgender persons, and 2 have taken steps to protect the rights of intersex persons.

This progress is encouraging. And yet in most countries in the world – even in those where Governments, Parliaments and Judiciaries have been taking positive steps – there is still a large gap between the promise of human rights and the harsh reality of the lives of many LGBT and intersex people.

To address this gap, we face a number of challenges:

First – we need to make greater progress in repealing laws that criminalize consensual same-sex relations between adults, laws that criminalize transgender people on the basis of their appearance, and other laws that discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These discriminatory laws not only violate basic human rights, they are also linked to hate crime, abuse and stigma. In a few countries, some political and religious actors are exploiting social prejudice and the lack of accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity for political gain, fomenting hate and pushing for new laws to punish or silence LGBT persons. This must be countered in partnership and consultation with local stakeholders, particularly LGBT organizations.

Second – we need a comprehensive response by States to human rights violations against LGBT and intersex persons. A response that recognises the differences between the situations and needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and that encompasses a variety of strategies: from legislation and policies on anti-discrimination and hate crime, to legal recognition of gender identity and of same-sex couples, to efforts to combat prejudice and discriminatory attitudes, to effective prosecution of violations and remedy for victims.

Third – we need countries to recognize that persecution of people because they are LGBT or intersex can constitute a valid ground for asylum. Telling asylum seekers that they should return to their home countries and keep their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status "invisible" is not acceptable – countries must refrain from returning refugees to a place where their life or freedom might be threatened.

Fourth – we need to ensure that human rights defenders and organizations are able to carry out their monitoring, reporting and advocacy work on these issues without facing violence, arrests, harassment, persecution and arbitrary restrictions.

The UN is here to help address these challenges. What do we do, concretely?

  • Recently, twelve key agencies in the UN system joined forces to issue an unprecedented statement with concrete recommendations to States on how to end violence and discrimination against LGBT and intersex persons, including in the context of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN’s recommendations have not appeared out of thin air – they are firmly based on the evolving jurisprudence of UN human rights mechanisms.
  • At the country level, we provide support to authorities to implement evidence-based measures to combat violence and discrimination and facilitate dialogue between relevant stakeholders, including civil society.
  • We also strive to build greater understanding and respect for the human rights of LGBT and intersex persons through public education initiatives, such as our Free & Equal campaign which has reached billions of people by working with high profile public figures and human rights defenders.
  • Recently, we have been developing training tools on relevant human rights standards and recommendations – including on specific human rights violations faced by intersex people and how to address them.

How can we ensure better implementation by States of UN recommendations in this field? We are developing a publication that will look in greater detail at the positive examples that exist of countries implementing these recommendations. It will be issued in the first half of 2016, but let me introduce our initial findings on what works:

Concrete examples of effective measures to combat violence include the adoption of anti-hate crime laws, creation of specialized hate crime prosecution units and national task-forces, surveys on experiences of violence, national hotlines to report incidents and the training of law enforcement officials.

Concrete examples of effective measures to combat discrimination include the review of penal codes to remove criminal sanctions for consensual same-sex conduct, legal prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, legal recognition of the gender identity of transgender persons without abusive requirements, legal recognition of same-sex couples and their families, protections for the physical integrity of intersex children, public education and awareness raising campaigns to combat homophobia and transphobia, establishing shelters for homeless LGBT and intersex youth, and anti-bullying initiatives in schools.

And generally speaking, the adoption of comprehensive action plans to combat discrimination against LGBT and intersex persons, either separately or as part of broader human rights action plans, can drive the implementation of relevant UN recommendations - by setting clear objectives and progress indicators, and by creating effective monitoring and accountability frameworks, and by bringing together relevant ministries and civil society organizations, national human rights institutions and other stakeholders in a coordination mechanism.

In Europe, the Americas and Africa, regional institutions have also been at the forefront of changes to address violence and discrimination against LGBT and intersex persons. This includes the Council of Europe and European Union institutions, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the Organization of American States institutions. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, hosts the only specialized human rights Rapporteur looking specifically at the human rights situation of LGBT and intersex people.

Individual cities have also been pioneers in combatting homophobia and transphobia. Initiatives at the local level can really transform the national debate – and examples abound: The Rainbow Cities network in Europe, and cities such as Buenos Aires, Mexico, Quezon City and many others, have shown that change is possible where true leadership exists.

Finally – no progress can be imagined without placing LGBT and intersex human rights defenders and civil society organizations at the centre. Their work has been crucial every step of the way in putting these issues on the table, documenting violations and advocating for effective protection of fundamental human rights. They must be consulted, supported and engaged as partners in the design, implementation and monitoring of the impact and effectiveness of laws, policies and programmes that affect LGBT and intersex persons.

It is only by joining forces between local, national, regional and international institutions, by placing LGBT and intersex people at the centre of our response, and by working in partnership with LGBT and intersex organizations, that we will be able to make progress in effectively combating violence and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

I wish you a productive panel discussion.