Born Free and Equal

The UN Human Rights Office has released a new publication on sexual orientation and gender identity in international human rights law. It sets out the source and scope of some of the core legal obligations that States have to protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The 60-page booklet is designed as a tool for States, to help them better understand the nature of their obligations and the steps required to meet them, as well as for civil society activists, human rights defenders and others seeking to hold Governments to account for breaches of international human rights law.

A demonstration in support of the rights of LGBT persons, Washington, U.S.A. © EPA/Jim Lo ScalzoIn her foreword to the publication, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay writes: “The case for extending the same rights to LGBT persons as those enjoyed by everyone else is neither radical nor complicated. It rests on two fundamental principles that underpin international human rights law: equality and non-discrimination. The opening words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are unequivocal: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’.”

For almost two decades, human rights treaty bodies and the special rapporteurs and other experts appointed by the Human Rights Council and its predecessor have documented widespread violations of the human rights of LGBT people. Reported violations include killings, rape and physical attacks, torture, arbitrary detention, the denial of rights to assembly, expression and information, and discrimination in employment, health and education and access to goods and services. In each case, the victims involved are targeted either because they are, or are assumed to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Oftentimes, the mere perception of homosexuality or transgender identity is enough to put people at risk.

The booklet focuses on five core obligations where national action is most urgently needed – from protecting people from homophobic violence, to preventing torture, decriminalizing homosexuality, prohibiting discrimination, and safeguarding freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly for all LGBT people. For each, the basis of the State obligation in international human rights law is explained with reference to the substantial body of decisions, recommendations and guidance issued by United Nations human rights mechanisms. The booklet also includes examples of actions that can be taken at a national level to bring laws, policies and practices into line with applicable international human rights standards.

In recent years, many States have made a determined effort to strengthen human rights protection in each of these areas. An array of new laws has been adopted – including laws banning discrimination, penalizing homophobic hate crimes, granting recognition of same-sex relationships, and making it easier for transgender individuals to obtain official documents that reflect their preferred gender. Training programmes have been developed for police, prison staff, teachers, social workers and other personnel, and anti-bullying initiatives have been implemented in many schools.

In the coming years, much more needs to be done to confront prejudice and protect LGBT people in all countries from violence and discrimination. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights hopes that this publication can help contribute to this end, by providing a practical resource for all those working for change – whether from the perspective of the United Nations, regional organizations, Governments, national human rights institutions or civil society.

14 September 2012

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