Thursday, 15 January 2009

UN General Assembly Affirms Equal Rights for all

In a powerful victory for the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 66 nations at the UN General Assembly, including Australia, supported a groundbreaking statement confirming that international human rights protections include sexual orientation and gender identity. It is the first time that a statement condemning rights abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has been presented in the General Assembly.

The statement drew unprecedented support from five continents, including six African nations. Argentina read the statement before the General Assembly. A cross-regional group of states coordinated the drafting of the statement, also including Brazil, Croatia, France, Gabon, Japan, the Netherlands, and Norway.

The 66 countries reaffirmed "the principle of non-discrimination, which requires that human rights apply equally to every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity." They stated they are "deeply concerned by violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms based on sexual orientation or gender identity," and said that "violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization and prejudice are directed against persons in all countries in the world because of sexual orientation or gender identity."

The statement condemned killings, torture, arbitrary arrest, and "deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health." The participating countries urged all nations to "promote and protect human rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity," and to end all criminal penalties against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The signatories overcame intense opposition from a group of governments that regularly try to block UN attention to violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Only 57 states signed an alternative text promoted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. While affirming the "principles of non-discrimination and equality," they claimed that universal human rights did not include "the attempt to focus on the rights of certain persons."

At first, the Vatican had voiced strong opposition to the General Assembly statement. Its opposition sparked severe criticism by human rights defenders worldwide. In a significant reversal, however, the Vatican indicated to the General Assembly that it called for repeal of criminal penalties for homosexual conduct.
2008 was the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the General Assembly statement reaffirms the reach and breadth of those principles. The statement is non-binding, but restates what UN human rights bodies have repeatedly said: that no one should face rights violations because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Navanetham Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, strongly supported the statement. In a videotaped message, she cited South Africa's 1996 decision to protect sexual orientation in its Constitution. She pointed to the "task and challenge to move beyond a debate on whether all human beings have rights," to "secure the climate for implementation."

Human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identityhappen regularly around the world. For example:
* In the United States, Amnesty International has documented serious patterns of police abuse against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenderpeople, including incidents amounting to torture and ill-treatment. The United States refused to sign the General Assembly statement.
* In Egypt, Human Rights Watch documented a massive crackdown on mensuspected of homosexual conduct between 2001-2004, in which hundreds orthousands of men were arrested and tortured. Egypt actively opposed theGeneral Assembly statement.
* The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has documented how, in many African countries, sodomy laws and prejudice deny rights protections to Africans engaged in same-sex practices amid the HIV/AIDS pandemic - and can actually criminalise outreach to affected groups.

The signatories to the General Assembly statement are:Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia,Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cape Verde, CentralAfrican Republic, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic,Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Greece,Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia,Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro,Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Poland,Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Slovakia,Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic ofMacedonia, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

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