Mexico did an expert job of facilitating the panel, frankly acknowledging at the outset that it was a predominantly Catholic country, with a conservative government, but that the challenges we all face in our own societies should not detract from our common commitment to non-discrimination, including on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The High Commissioner delivered a very strong clear speech, affirming the GA statement, recognizing that even in the alternative statement delivered by Syria it was acknowledged that no person should face human rights violations, expressing the view that common ground could be found in the growing awareness and emerging consensus that no-one should be denied their human rights on any ground, and predicting that “ingrained prejudices” relating to sexual orientation and gender identity will some day be viewed in the same way as the discriminatory attitudes that fuel racism and sexism.
Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, emphasized that criminal sanctions against homosexuality violate international rights to privacy and non-discrimination, and undermine the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Michael O’Flaherty laid out a strong legal framework, speaking of the work of the treaty bodies and Special Procedures in this area, and identifying actions which States and the international community can take, including joining the GA statement, increasing engagement at the Council on sexual orientation and gender identity issues, integrating these issues throughout UPR and treaty body reporting and discussions, and advancing the dialogue through a high-level experts meeting, possibly organised by the OHCHR. Reine Alapini-Gansou, Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, identified some of the examples of human rights violations that had come to her attention, and described the increasing awareness and attention to these issues at the African Commission.
Justus Eisfeld did a great job of raising awareness of gender identity issues, providing practical examples of both violations and positive developments across regions, and frankly challenging co-sponsoring States to lead the way by reforming their domestic laws and policies to respect the human rights of trans and intersex people. Neha Sood provided a detailed analysis of the conditions that give rise to human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the role of patriarchy in restricting expressions of sexuality, and challenges and next steps facing our communities in diverse regions.
In the open discussion that followed, France spoke about the GA statement and Paris Congress, Colombia provided the positive example of the recent OAS Declaration, and the USA affirmed the commitments of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including their recent recognition of LGBT Pride month. The Czech Republic affirmed that recognizing LGBT people strengthens community values, and expressed support for the Yogyakarta Principles. Botswana acknowledged that the issues are sensitive and complex, that we are “not there yet”, expressed concern at what it felt to be a lack of balance in the presentations, but welcomed the fact that a dialogue had been opened and that an incremental approach taking into account national experiences could assist in moving the discussion forward.
Positive statements were also made by Slovenia, Canada and Switzerland, a representative from the Council of Europe spoke about the work of European institutions in this area, and Sandeep from ACPD underlined the importance of recognizing the linkages with a sexual rights approach, particularly since the same laws which criminalise homosexuality often target other forms of sexuality as well, such as sexual activity outside marriage.
There were no hostile interventions, and the panellists provided strong responses to issues raised. Afterwards, there was a lot of positive feedback by State and civil society attendees about the success of the event and the significant step forward that had been achieved in advancing visibility and understanding of these issues in the often difficult environment of the UN. It was particularly encouraging to see gender identity issues receiving specific attention within an international human rights framework.
The meeting took place in one of the larger, more formal rooms at the Palais des Nations, and with the High Commissioner and other expert panellists on the podium, 50 States with their nameplates in front of them, professional quality interpretation, and a full room, the meeting often had the feeling of a formal UN plenary … which some day it will be.
The 50 States attending the event (at least those with their nameplates up, and there may have been others) included:
Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, FYR of Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palestine, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Rwanda, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland , Turkey, UK, Uruguay, USA.
The whole experience has been a tremendous collaboration between civil society, some very dedicated co-sponsoring States and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Afterwards, many of us went for a well-earned chance to unwind and share drinks and pizza, and today – a fine clear day with blue skies overhead - a tired but happy crew will wander up into the mountains to enjoy the views over Lake Geneva and across to the Alps, before returning to the grindstone for what promises to be a very intensive final week ahead at the Council.