For decades the word "gay" was almost never heard in formal meetings at the United Nations. Today, after a series of recent diplomatic breakthroughs, awareness of the gravity and extent of homophobic violence and discrimination -- and the need to tackle it -- is widespread and growing.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his human rights chief Navi Pillay have led the way. In 2010 they launched a global appeal for the decriminalization of homosexuality and for other measures to safeguard the rights of LGBT people. Since then they have taken up the issue repeatedly in public speeches and private meetings, urging governments to confront homophobic prejudice, not pander to it, and to punish violence and hatred, not love.
Reflecting a shift in sentiment, in 2011 the UN Human Rights Council adopted the first-ever UN resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. In followup, the UN human rights office issued the first official UN report documenting violence and discriminatory laws and practices affecting LGBT people in all regions. The report's findings and recommendations were taken up by the Human Rights Council last year, the first time a UN intergovernmental body had staged a formal debate on the issue.
Yet opposition remains entrenched. A common objection is that LGBT people, in seeking protection from violence and discrimination, are in effect asking for new or special rights. Another is that because international treaties are silent on homophobic discrimination, states are not required to address it. Neither of these holds water. LGBT people are not asking for anything that others do not already enjoy. There is nothing new or special about rights to life, privacy, freedom from discrimination, freedom of expression or any of the other basic rights at stake. Existing international treaties guarantee these rights to everyone without distinction. There is no fine print in any of our human rights treaties that would permit a state to grant full rights to some while withholding them from others on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Another common argument is that sexual orientation and gender identity are Western ideas. It would be difficult to find a historian or anthropologist anywhere to support the view that homosexuality is Western. Homophobia, on the other hand, was all too successfully exported by the West during the colonial era. It is a sad reality that most of the laws today used to punish LGBT people were originally imposed in the 19th century by the colonial powers of the day.
Perhaps the most often-heard argument is that same-sex relationships and nontraditional expressions of gender are incompatible with prevailing culture, religious teachings and traditional values. Culture, religion and tradition help shape societies, but they are not monolithic, nor can they override individual freedoms. The collective, however united, cannot impose its shared culture, traditions and religious beliefs on an individual against his or her wishes.
While the emergence of a debate at the UN is positive, there remains a mountain to climb. Far too many states -- 76 -- still retain laws that criminalize same-sex relationships. Far too few have laws that offer comprehensive protection from discrimination in the workplace and beyond. Fewer still have adequate systems for combatting, or even recording, homophobic hate crimes.
The immediate challenge is to keep the focus on the facts -- on the human rights violations to which far too many LGBT people are still subject. That in turn requires more systematic monitoring, documenting and reporting, accompanied by continued dialogue to persuade more states to take necessary measures to address abuses. It will not be easy to overcome the deep divisions exposed by the current debate, but considering how far this discussion has come in a relatively short period, there is every reason to be hopeful that further progress lies ahead at the United Nations on this critical and long-neglected human rights issue.
In this video I discuss the debate on LGBT rights now unfolding at the United Nations and examine some of the arguments put forward by those opposed to full legal equality for LGBT people: