The United Nations headquarters in New York City

The United Nations headquarters in New York City

An unprecedented meeting of government ministers on September 26 called for urgent action to end the scourge of violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. But where was South Africa?

The meeting of officials from close to a dozen countries – known as the LGBT Core Group at the UN in New York – was the first in which so many have come together to discuss LGBT rights issues at the United Nations.

The ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and United States, and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued a declaration stating that LGBT people “must enjoy the same human rights as everyone else”.

They also urged UN member states “to repeal discriminatory laws, improve responses to hate-motivated violence, and ensure adequate and appropriate legal protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity”.

The ministerial meeting took place in the wake of a landmark 2011 report by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights that showed widespread violence and discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

That groundbreaking report was initiated in part by South Africa, which has in the last two years been lauded for its international stance on LGBT equality. The country, however, was notably absent from last week’s meeting. It was also not a signatory to the declaration (nor was any other African country).

Charles Radcliffe, head of the global issues section at the UN human rights office in New York told MSNBC that while the meeting was limited to the core group, “The fact that it was happening was not secret. Any country could have requested to join.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that the “meeting of ministers from around the globe shows a landmark commitment to end persecution based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The challenge now for both the United Nations and the individual countries will be to turn that commitment into action.”

More than 76 countries criminalise same-sex sexual relations between people who are over the age of consent. In many more countries, discrimination in housing, health care, and employment is commonplace. Many LGBT people also face hate-motivated violence, including sexual violence, physical assault, and targeted killings.

“LGBT rights advocates have been accused of imposing moral values on others, but in fact it’s the intolerant governments that are imposing their values,” Roth said. “LGBT people exist everywhere. The only question is whether they can enjoy the same human rights as everyone else, or whether governments impose bigoted views to deny them those rights.

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