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Event: TUC Lebian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Conference

Speech Date: 06/02/06

Speaker: Ian Pearson MP

I am delighted to be here today and grateful for the opportunity to make an address at this year's TUC Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender conference.

As joint Minister for the DTI and the FCO, with responsibilities for both trades unions and for human rights, this issue sits at the very heart of my portfolio.

General on human rights and LGBT rights
Around the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are at particular risk of human rights violations because of their sexual or gender identity.

Same-sex relations are still illegal in over 70 countries, and in several nations they are punishable by death. In other states, vague and sweeping laws against indecency or similar terms are used to criminalise the identity of people belonging to the LGBT community.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, courts impose sentences of imprisonment and flogging for alleged homosexual conduct. In Nepal, human rights groups continue to raise cases of attacks by police, with apparent impunity, on transgender people. And in Iran, as occurred last November, gay men continue to face execution for consensual sexual activity.

And yet, despite spanning all cultures and countries of the globe, the human rights violations endured by LGBT people are shrouded in silence. The social stigma and prejudice which still surround issues of sexual orientation in many parts of the world mean that many abuses simply go unreported, undocumented and without condemnation.

Perhaps worse still, where victims muster the courage to come forward and make an official complaint, prejudice and discrimination mean that they are met, in some countries, at best with official indifference and at worst with further persecution.

This type of institutionalised discrimination dehumanises its victim. Perceived difference and non-conformity with the majority have been used throughout the ages to portray sectors of the population as somehow less than human, as legitimate targets for abuse by both government agents and society at large. This reinforces impunity for the perpetrators and further incites violence against the individuals and groups in question. It also impedes victims’ access to redress and equal protection under the law.

Amnesty International have observed that ‘while some governments take an active role in fuelling homophobic violence in society through inflammatory statements and institutionalised discrimination, many more share responsibility for it through lack of action’. I agree. I think this is an issue on which we could – and should - all speak out in a louder voice.

Government view
This Government believes that all human beings are equal in dignity and in rights, and we are all entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without distinction of any kind. It does not matter what our gender, our age, our ethnicity, our religion, our sexual orientation or any other way in which we may differ from one another, we are all entitled to our human rights, without discrimination, by virtue of our being human. International human rights law is grounded on this premise.

UK obligations
The UK Government takes its international obligations seriously and we have seen some very positive steps forward at the national level in recent years. I do not say this in order to be complacent, there is still more to be done, but the trends are positive. In 2003, the Government outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation. We now have legislation that recognises transsexual people in their acquired gender as a result of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. We have seen the equalising of the age of consent, the scrapping of Section 28, the Adoption and Children Act allowing same sex couples to adopt jointly for the first time, and the removal of discriminatory offences in the Sex Offences Act 2003. As from April 2005, the statutory duties of the Criminal Justice Bill were extended so that any hostility or offence committed because of the victim’s sexual orientation will be treated as an aggravating factor when passing sentence. December of last year saw the first Civil Partnerships in the UK. And, we now look ahead to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights which will provide institutional support for the sexual orientation regulations for the first time.

Before we start to think about how we can promote the rights of LGBT people overseas, it is crucial to have a good story to tell at home. We have no influence with foreign governments on these issues if our own standards are no better. There is, of course, more to be done, but the clear message, from the very top of this Government, is that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity will not be tolerated in the UK.

Sexual Orientation and the UN
So, how can we promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people overseas?

The UN is the single most important body for promoting human rights worldwide. I am sad to say, however, that the international community has struggled to give the rights of LGBT people the attention they deserve. The very consideration of this issue is seen by many states as threatening and inappropriate, and continues to be the source of much difficulty and dispute.

This was shown at the 59th Commission on Human Rights in 2003. For the first time, a resolution on Human Rights and Sexual Orientation was tabled. This landmark draft resolution, proposed by Brazil and co-sponsored by at least 20 countries including the UK, called on states to promote and protect the human rights of all people, it stressed that the enjoyment of universal rights and freedoms should not be hindered in any way on the grounds of sexual orientation. This draft text proved to be one of the most contentious of the session, meeting with significant hostility, and its consideration was ultimately postponed. The UK, along with others, has twice issued a statement on the subsequent postponements of this resolution, regretting that the Commission on Human Rights is still not ready to consider discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. But to date, the international community has still not been able to return to this text.

How can the UK help to break the silence?
Breaking the silence on these issues is an essential prerequisite to actually promoting and defending the rights of LGBT people overseas. Despite the very real difficulties we have faced in the Commission on Human Rights, the UN human rights machinery has begun to highlight violations committed solely because of gender identity or sexuality.

Several of the UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups have drawn attention to human rights violations against sexual minorities within their respective mandates. The Special Rapporteurs on Violence against Women, Health, Torture, Human Rights Defenders, Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions, and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, have all spoken out about the human rights abuses suffered by the LGBT community. The UK will continue to support the Special Procedures addressing the rights of LGBT people in the course of their mandates.

The UK has also worked and continues to work with EU partners and others to include language on LGBT issues in thematic resolutions at the UN. In 2004, for example, the UK supported a Swedish resolution on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions which called on governments to halt executions carried out on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation. In this way, we slowly begin to bring these issues into the mainstream.

Other international fora
Outside of the UN, we have also seen progress in promoting the rights of LGBT people in other international fora.

At the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw on 19-30 September 2005, the UK, on behalf of the EU, made a closing plenary statement expressing concern that consenting same-sex acts are criminal in two of the OSCE participating states and requesting that the issue of tolerance and non-discrimination in relation to sexual orientation be given consideration by the OSCE. I am pleased to say that the Chief Executive of International Lesbian and Gay Association has since been invited as a keynote speaker to the first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2006 on Human Rights Defenders. We have also called for sexual orientation to be mainstreamed into other tolerance and non-discrimination events.

Last month (Jan 2006), the European Parliament adopted a resolution on homophobia in Europe, which strongly condemns any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Among other things, it also calls on Member States to ensure that LGBT people are protected from homophobic hate speech and violence and to ensure that same sex partners enjoy the same respect, dignity and protection as the rest of society. This resolution will help further combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation throughout the European Union.

The UK has raised cases of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation bilaterally or in partnership with the EU with third countries. However, I do not wish to under-play the difficulty that we sometimes have in raising such cases with certain states. In these instances, keeping a line of communication about human rights issues open, and stressing their universality, is a primary concern.

Civil Society
Building the role of civil society is vital if we are going to give LGBT rights a voice and combat the violations committed every day based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

I would like to pay particular tribute to the work and courage of human rights defenders around the world who strive to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at great personal risk. People like Fanny Ann Eddy – an outstanding activist who founded the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association – and who was brutally murdered in September 2004. It is important to recognise that the task of LGBT human rights defenders is made all the more difficult by the fact that in many countries they struggle to be accepted and supported even by the wider human rights community. This makes the monitoring and reporting of the discrimination they face all the more difficult.

I want to finish today by being quite clear that this is a question of justice and rights. States have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all people without discrimination. It is not a question of opinion or morals.

Many governments do not share our views on the issue of LGBT rights, but I want to assure you that we are in this for the long haul. The FCO will continue in its efforts to defend the right of people not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their sexuality.

In the words of Fanny Ann Eddy, 'silence creates vulnerability'. It is the responsibility of us all to break that silence.

Thank you.

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