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Topics In the News
Historic Ministerial Meeting on LGBT Rights at UN
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/01/13
Last updated on: 10/02/13
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Jessica Stern, Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

On September 26, 2013, during the convocation of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, foreign ministers and senior officials met to discuss glbtq rights. The historic meeting underlines the new visibility of gay rights internationally and the political significance that gay issues command in the Western democracies that sponsored the meeting. The UN has recently released a video of highlights from the historic gathering.

As described by Charles Radcliffe in the Huffington Post, the meeting took place on September 26, 2013 in "a nondescript meeting room in the UN Secretariat Building, the kind more typically used for staff training and management workshops." There "foreign ministers and senior officials met . . . to discuss next steps in the struggle to protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people around the world."

The core group of countries committed to raising glbtq-rights issues at the UN is chaired by the Netherlands. Among those present at the meeting included 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.

Radcliffe describes the gathering as the first ministerial meeting at the UN on glbtq rights and "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 glbtq 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." He said that the countries represented at the meeting were sending 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 Pusi, 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 crowds. 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.

Those present at the meeting issued an historic Ministerial Declaration on Ending Violence and Discrimination against Individuals Based on their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The declaration was endorsed by the U.S. Secretary of State, the foreign ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union.

In July 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Office launched Free & Equal, a global public information campaign to promote greater respect for the human rights of LGBT people. Free & Equal has now released a video of highlights from the meeting of the LGBT Core Group.

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