On International Human Rights Day, Let's Renew Our Commitment to LGBT Rights

On Dec. 10, marking the celebration of International Human Rights Day, it is remarkable to see the growing international commitment to protect and promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Bob Dylan's civil rights anthem, "The Times They Are a-Changin'," could have been the theme song this year as one by one, the world witnessed legal victories for LGBT rights in France, Britain, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, and the United States. While celebrations were jubilant in these countries, recently passed anti-LGBT legislation in Russia reminded us that these rights are not enjoyed by everyone across the world. Although many countries celebrated the legalization of gay marriage this year, in many corners of the world, LGBT persons are condemned to a life of silence and secrecy. They are treated as pariahs and are subjected to violence and discrimination. More than 76 countries criminalize same-sex relations, and at least five countries impose the death penalty for such so-called offenses.

Using its forums to speak to all member states, the United Nations (UN) plays a unique role in the fight for LGBT rights. Under the leadership of Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN produced a landmark report in 2011 on the violence and discrimination faced by LGBT persons across the world. Its findings were shocking. Homophobic and transphobic violence has been recorded in every region of the world, with violent acts ranging from murder, kidnappings, assaults, rapes to psychological threats and arbitrary deprivations of liberty.

The report modestly called on member states to end violence against LGBT persons and decriminalize homosexuality, and yet this issue deeply divides member states. When the report was presented at the Human Rights Council in March 2012, the High Commissioner faced fierce opposition, especially from African and Islamic countries. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Islamic countries, accused those sponsoring the resolution of misinterpreting international human rights law and imposing "controversial 'new standards,'" as if only certain groups are deserving of legal protection from violence and discrimination. A number of States walked out of the chamber in protest of any discussion of sexual orientation by the Human Rights Council. Sadly, such intolerant responses demonstrate the daily reality for LGBT persons living in many of those countries.

The challenge now is for the United Nations to persuade countries to change their laws and end persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As Charles Radcliffe, who heads the global issues section at the UN human rights office in New York, stated, discriminatory laws must be repealed because anti-LGBT legislation "legitimizes homophobia in society at large." But there is reason to be optimistic, as more and more countries have taken steps to decriminalize homosexuality. Due to international pressure, hate crime laws and anti-discrimination laws have been enacted to combat homophobic violence. On Sept. 26, 2013, an unprecedented meeting of government ministers convened in New York to call for urgent action to end the scourge of violence against LGBT persons. It should be noted too that after becoming South Africa's first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, a human rights hero, ushered in the world's first constitution that explicitly ensured protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Yet laws alone will not bring about change. To effect real change in society, public attitudes must also change. For this reason, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the Free & Equal campaign in July 2013 in Capetown, South Africa. The global campaign aims to raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination and encourage greater respect for the rights of LGBT people everywhere. The Free & Equal campaign will include videos and public-service announcements distributed through social media, including messages from several celebrities who have already pledged their support.

Although legally binding for many countries, people may not acknowledge the words of international human rights treaties, which declare that all persons are born free and equal, no exceptions. However, they may listen to personal testimony from those who have suffered violence and discrimination, or from those who have been forced to live their lives in hiding. The hope is that people may be willing to set aside deep-seated cultural and religious objections and accept that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

For naysayers who are pessimistic about the realization of LGBT rights in certain parts of the world, they should be reminded of how quickly attitudes changed in the United States over the last 10 years. The United States has also shown leadership on this issue, pledging to use diplomacy and foreign aid to advance gay rights abroad and inspiring confidence in those fighting for LGBT rights that with persistent international pressure, change will come.

There are many now beating their drums, demanding equality and dignity. The United Nations and LGBT activists across the world may face an uphill struggle, but in the words of Nelson Mandela, "It always seems impossible until it's done."