Opening Speech at Conference on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

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Ladies and gentlemen – and all those in between,

On behalf of South Africa and Norway, I am delighted to welcome you all to this important international conference on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. May it pave the way for long-awaited action!

I would also like to commend South Africa in particular for its dedicated leadership in protecting sexual minorities from discrimination and violence. Norway is proud to be part of the international coalition. It is a coalition of the willing, which is drawing support from more and more countries in all regions of the world.

Human rights are for all. This is a clear and basic message – and it has been said before. But I will continue to repeat it until it becomes a reality. In fact this is really why we are gathered here today.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. That means our human rights are inherent birth rights. They apply to all persons regardless of race or nationality, age or gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

For some people this promise remains nothing more than a promise. We have to make sure that this promise – of basic human rights for all – is fulfilled.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people continue to face discrimination and violence. Simply for being who they are.

In Cameroon, for instance, 28 people have been prosecuted for same-sex conduct only since 2010, according to Human Rights Watch. Most cases are marked by grave human rights violations, including torture, forced confessions, denial of access to legal counsel and discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers and judicial officials.

Recent years have seen the proliferation of laws prohibiting so-called “homosexual propaganda” – especially in countries in Central and Eastern Europe and in Russia. Such legislative measures clearly restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly, and violate the principles of equality and non-discrimination.

Similarly, LGBT people in Uganda continue to live under the threat of the infamous proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will deny them their rights and broaden the criminalisation of their very existence if it is adopted and enforced.

These were just a few examples. There are many more.

My point is this: sexual minorities often face two options: either to claim their rights and face repression and mistreatment, or to hide their identity and live a life of fear and untapped potential.

Such a reality is unacceptable.

LGBT people are entitled to claim and enjoy their rights – just like anyone else.

We often hear that sexual diversity is incompatible with certain cultures or religions. It is true that religious beliefs and traditional and cultural values are essential elements of every society. They are undeniably part of our identity, our history and our present time.

LGBT people are part of all of our societies. They are our family members, our friends, our work colleagues. But collective beliefs and ideas can never justify the infringement of individual rights and freedoms.

The individual’s right to freedom of religion does not imply a right to discriminate against others.

Fundamental freedom of expression does not entail an entitlement to harass or threaten fellow human beings.

A majority is never right in oppressing a minority.

And the freedom of one does not restrict the freedom of the other.

It is understandable, however, that addressing this issue generates resistance. Resistance is a natural reaction to progress and change.

Therefore, dismissing this resistance outright will get us nowhere. On the contrary, it could be counterproductive.

When I was born in 1964, LGBT persons were still criminalised in Norway. I grew up in a society where LGBT persons were stigmatised and excluded from many parts of society. Raising the issue generated heated debates and stark opposition to change also here. Over time, fortunately, things have changed.

I see the struggle for the human rights LGBT people as similar to other struggles – be it the struggles against racial discrimination, for social justice or for gender equality.

In retrospect, it is easy to forget the struggles that were fought in order to achieve fundamental freedoms and the protection of key human rights.

People often take this process for granted – as a society’s natural evolution – when what really happened was that courageous human rights defenders, who refused to be silenced by critics and opponents, drove the process forward.

The role of human rights defenders is also vital on the LGBT issue. Norway is a staunch supporter of their tireless efforts to improve the human rights situation on the ground.

Human rights defenders are the true experts. They know the local realities. They also lead the way in demanding and defending human rights on the front line – often even putting their own lives at risk.

We therefore attach great importance to the human rights defenders resolution, which was adopted by consensus in the United Nations Human Rights Council in March.

Just as human rights are universal, the challenges in implementing them are not limited by geographical boundaries. Violence and discrimination against LGBT people occur in every region, and in every nation, of the world.

Every day there are new incidents of hate speech, intimidation, attacks and killings on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in a worrying number of countries worldwide. Too often, these attacks are carried out with impunity.

The Human Rights Council resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, which was presented by South Africa and adopted in June 2011, was of fundamental importance. The resolution represents an unprecedented breakthrough in terms of dedication and support for protecting the human rights of LGBT people.

The follow-up of the resolution has included a historic report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a panel debate in the Human Rights Council, regional seminars, and this important event for which we are gathered today.

 

When faced with global challenges, we must find global solutions. These solutions should be based on the experiences from each region. That is why we took the initiative together with South Africa to launch a series of regional seminars leading up to this global event.

Our task during the coming days is to compare notes, take stock of where we stand, and most importantly set the direction for future action.

I am therefore pleased to see that all regions are represented here today. This provides us with a unique opportunity to join forces and build common platforms of understanding and commitment.

The progress made so far is a direct result of new partnerships and new alliances, which were made possible by ignoring old divisions and traditional constellations.

This cross-regional process is also a testament to the important role that the United Nations can and must play. The UN Secretary-General has played a vital role by taking a clear stand on this issue. And the High Commissioner’s work has further highlighted the need to assess and address the protection of individuals against discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The UN Human Rights Council bears particular responsibility for gaps in implementation and protection, and for finding robust and reliable ways to ensure that the human rights of sexual minorities are protected and respected.

My hope is that this conference will pave the way for a continued process within the Human Rights Council and beyond.

Although great challenges remain, we must acknowledge the historic shift that we are also witnessing.

The discussion about protecting the rights of LGBT people, which for a long time was little more than whispering in the corridors, has finally been lifted onto the formal agenda of the United Nations. This is no insignificant achievement!

Civil society has played a critical role in this process. I am therefore pleased to see that a broad range of civil society representatives are here with us today.

My request to you is: Tell us your stories! Share your experiences! And help us come up with new ways of working together to protect the rights of all who face violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is our duty, as political and societal leaders, to take every possible step to assist civil society in this struggle.

We cannot shy away from this responsibility. Turning a blind eye to discrimination and human rights abuse is tantamount to complying with, or condoning, violations of international law.

Countering these negative trends requires firm commitment and action. We will have to work together to overcome resistance, to persuade sceptics and to counter prejudice.

We will succeed, as we have done before, through commitment, cooperation and courage.

Once again, thank you for being here. I look forward to the outcome of your discussions and collective thinking.

Thank you very much for the attention.

*****

Follow the conference on Twitter, with hashtag #HR4all

 

 

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