Speech Minister Koenders at Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference Montevideo
Speech Minister Koenders at Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference – Non Violence, Non Discrimination and Social Inclusion in Montevideo, July 13.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex friends,
Or should I just say: fellow human beings,
Since the start of my political career, I’ve been opening most of my speeches with the words ‘ladies and gentlemen’. Not today. As a politician, I know that words are never just words. They reflect how we view the world, and they also shape that view. Words can enlighten us, but they can also distort reality. Words can evoke feelings of sympathy, but they can also incite hatred. They can include people, but they can also exclude people.
So words matter. In preparing my remarks for today, I realised there’s something wrong with the words I often use to start my speeches. They ignore a part of the audience, which is something no public speaker should do. After all, nobody opens their speeches with ‘middle-aged men wearing hats’ or ‘blondes’. From now on, I will certainly be more aware of this.
Friends, I’m happy to see so many of you here from around the world. I would like to thank my colleague Rodolfo Novoa for hosting this conference – not a moment too soon. I applaud this country’s leadership on ensuring equal rights for LGBTI people.
To all of you gathered here I say: we need all your boldness, all your intelligence and all your courage. Because we have some tough problems to solve. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’
So why are so many LGBTI people still oppressed? Why do so many have to fear for their safety? And what can we, human rights advocates and governments, do about that?
We should all be outraged when people suffer discrimination. Oppression is always political, sometimes traditional, but never natural. Human rights apply to all human beings. The choice to exclude certain groups from protection endangers not just these groups, but society as a whole. Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King observed that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
We are reminded all too often of the enduring truth of those words. Last month’s heinous attack in Orlando shocked the world. It was a vile reminder of why safe spaces are so important, and how threats to justice do not always come from governments. It’s true, they often do: homosexuality is illegal in over 75 countries, and punishable by death in seven countries. But the fight against injustice, discrimination and violence concerns all societies, and it concerns all of society.
That fight is far from over. In my own country, half of LGB young people sometimes think of suicide. I repeat: half. Compared to other young people, they also attempt suicide more often. Among young transgender people, the numbers are even more depressing: 70% have thought of suicide at least once, and a staggering 20% have attempted to kill themselves. One out of five. Feelings of rejection, shame and even worthlessness all contribute to these numbers. These feelings are not natural, they are instilled by society. They are the result of taboos, of intolerance, of peer pressure. Until those social causes are eradicated, until societies and cultures have become truly inclusive, injustice will prevail.
Just as governments are only part of the problem, they can provide only part of the solution. Civil society is at least as important. We need each other. I’m honoured to work with COC Netherlands, the world’s oldest continuously active LGBTI organisation – it turned 70 this year! And I want to pay tribute to Ovejas Negras, COC’s counterpart here in Uruguay, who are doing a marvellous job. You deserve credit for much more than just your achievements for LGBTI people.
Each minority sometimes has to fight its own battles; but when it comes to inclusive societies LGBTI people are often the proverbial canaries in the coal mine – if they are denied equal rights, then oppression is usually lying in wait for others. Or to put it the other way around: the progress achieved by LGBTI organisations is an inspiration for many who find themselves marginalised.
Friends, Your Excellencies,
We still have a long way to go. I’m not naïve. But I’m not a pessimist either; otherwise I wouldn’t be here. As an optimistic realist, I believe the future can be as bright as a rainbow – but only if we join forces for change. That’s why this conference is so important: it marks the start of an international coalition to achieve equal rights for LGBTI people. This event is not meant to pay lip service. It is not meant to congratulate ourselves. It’s meant instead to draw up an agenda for change and to work together to realise it.
We can achieve so much more if we build an equal rights coalition that works together non-stop in every major multilateral forum, and also meets from time to time at a special conference. Just look at the UN Human Rights Council: two weeks ago, we made a historic breakthrough in Geneva. A slim majority of countries adopted a resolution on LGBT rights, which was supported by a large number of NGOs. As a member of the Human Rights Council, my country fully supported this initiative.
For the first time in history, the United Nations will now appoint an independent expert to monitor and report on the human rights situation of LGBT people. This is a small but tremendously important step in improving the position of millions of people. It’s the kind of change we should aim for.
In building and expanding this coalition for equal rights, we need to be smart and we need to be bold. The forces of injustice are strong. Some will try to misrepresent what we stand for. Some will claim that our coalition is pushing an agenda based on values that are not widely shared. Some will accuse us of trying to secure special rights for a certain group of people.
Fortunately, we are prepared for all that, and worse. Remember, injustice is always political and never natural. That gives us an advantage. We can be confident: it’s not about special rights for some, it’s about equal rights for all – as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines. That makes justice for LGBTI people a test of our universal values, shared by all of humanity.
We’re already seeing positive developments in individual countries. Countries like Mozambique and the Seychelles have recently decriminalised homosexuality. Botswana has allowed an LGBT organisation to register, a step towards ensuring freedom of association for everyone. Last year, Nepal became the first Asian country to protect its sexual and gender minorities in its Constitution. Japan and Ukraine have adopted new guidelines and legislation to combat anti-LGBTI discrimination in the workplace.
These are all heartening steps. A coalition can step up the momentum even more – in two ways. First of all, we can push each other to do better in our own countries. I’m sure most of you know about peer pressure – negative peer pressure, I’m afraid. But together, we can turn peer pressure into a force for positive change. No country has a monopoly on virtue, and no country has a monopoly on vice.
Let’s use peer pressure to hold each other accountable. Let’s learn from each other by sharing best practices, and by analyzing mistakes.
Second, governments that are undertaking laudable efforts in their own countries can also be more outspoken internationally. A coalition or caucus can help them do this, in every forum that matters: the Human Rights Council, the Security Council, regional bodies like the European Union, and all the other international organisations our members belong to. We can even think bigger, beyond intergovernmental organisations. For instance, what about sports federations like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA? Our governments and civil society organisations may not be members, but we can join forces with the associations that are.
Friends, Your Excellencies,
Today marks the start of the largest conference of its kind ever held on the theme of equal rights for LGBTI people. That in itself is a reason to celebrate and a reason to be proud. Our coalition is a sign of growing international awareness and support. But we cannot sit back and relax: injustice is still all too prevalent. And sadly, in some places it is spreading. This is the time to redouble our efforts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights won’t magically become the universal application of human rights. Or, as someone at the UN once put it: a vision without implementation is just a hallucination. It’s up to all of us to make that beautiful vision of equal rights for all a reality.
So let’s get to work.