The United Nations is crawling with world leaders and ministers this week, creating gridlock in Midtown Manhattan and attracting throngs of diplomats, campaigners and journalists to the UN complex on the East River. The schedule is packed with high-powered gatherings on everything from peace and security to development, the environment and human rights. But in a week of a thousand meetings, one stood out not so much for the number of people attending but for the list of participants and the topic under discussion.
In a nondescript meeting room in the UN Secretariat Building, the kind more typically used for staff training and management workshops, foreign ministers and senior officials met today to discuss next steps in the struggle to protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people around the world. They included members of a Dutch-chaired core group of countries committed to raising LGBT rights-related issues at the UN. Among those present were U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, as well as ministers from Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France, the Netherlands and Norway, and top diplomats from Japan, New Zealand and the European Union.
"So what?" You might ask. Well, for all the changes of recent years, including the growth of social media-driven activism, hierarchy and protocol still matter a lot at the UN, especially during this first week of a new General Assembly session. The fact that rights violations against LGBT people were, for the first time, the subject of a ministerial meeting was widely noticed by diplomats, the media and other observers. It's a sign of the increasing visibility of these issues, and of the political importance that many countries now attach to combating homophobic violence and discrimination. A subject once brushed under the carpet has gradually emerged as a recurrent agenda item at the UN, including now at a ministerial level.
Participants were briefed by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, as well as by the executive directors of Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In her remarks Pillay spoke of great advances in recent years in the protection of LGBT rights in many parts of the world, but also of a deeply disturbing pattern of violations. "Not a week goes by without my office receiving reports of brutal violence and intimidation, police harassment and discriminatory treatment. Those who speak out in defense of the rights of LGBT people risk persecution and assault and even, in some countries, legal sanctions," she told the meeting.
Secretary Kerry described as "stunning" the speed with which "people have come to break down walls of injustice and barriers of prejudice." By coming together today, he said, countries were sending a "a clear and compelling message ... and it's not just in support of gays and lesbians around the world; it's really in support of the founding values of this institution."
Argentina's foreign minister, Héctor Marcos Timerman, warned against confusing patterns of discrimination with traditional values, a theme that was also picked up by other speakers. The UN's Pillay described the pushback she sometimes encounters when she raises the issue of LGBT rights with ministers during her travels. "They say that same-sex relationships and transgender identities go against their culture, religion or traditions," she said. "My answer is that human rights are universal."
Emphasizing the importance of political leadership, Croatia's foreign minister, Vesna Pusić, recalled how she and four other government ministers had joined a gay pride march in Croatia in a show of support a year after a similar march had been attacked by hostile onlookers. Much more needed to be done, she said, before discriminating against others because of their sexual orientation and gender identity was seen as just as unacceptable as doing so on grounds of race or gender.
One of two representatives of civil society present, Jessica Stern of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission appealed to supportive countries to hold the line at the UN and help protect activists on the ground. "We are not in an easy fight. And it is not just a fight for UN resolutions. It is, for many, a fight for their lives," she said.
An immediate outcome of today's discussion was a ministerial declaration -- another first -- endorsed by the foreign ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and the Netherlands. The declaration describes the criminalization of consensual, same-sex relations as "a tragedy" that exposes "millions of people to the risk of arrest and imprisonment and, in some countries, the death penalty." It calls on all UN member countries "to repeal discriminatory laws, improve responses to hate-motivated violence, and ensure adequate and appropriate legal protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity."
UN meetings often conclude with a call for "dialogue," and today's was no exception. While more member states than ever now recognize the gravity of rights violations against LGBT people, many still refuse to address the issue at all. Given the resistance, continued dialogue is essential if more countries are to be persuaded to embrace change. Reinforcing diplomatic outreach is the UN human rights office's Free & Equal campaign, launched in Cape Town in late July and pitched at the general public. The campaign aims to raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination and encourage a change in popular attitudes.
Today's meeting lasted 60 minutes before ministers had to rush to their next appointments, surrounded by a pack of secret service agents and UN security guards. Can you change the world in an hour? No. But you can start.
In July 2013 the UN human rights office launched Free & Equal, a global public information campaign to promote greater respect for the human rights of LGBT people. For more information on the campaign, and to access and share campaign materials, please visit www.unfe.org or follow the campaign on Facebook (facebook.com/free.equal) or Twitter (@free_equal).