International LGBTI activists assemble in Montevideo for Equal Rights Coalition launch

Around the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people face discrimination, violence and serious threats to basic human rights. LGBTI activists work with governments through various fora to address these issues, including through the Human Rights Council and other multilateral mechanisms. Recently, Latin American countries headed a ground breaking resolution for the first UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Human Rights Council.

Following on from Latin America’s leading role in the resolution, LGBTI activists and government representatives came together from every region across the world last week in a historic meeting in Montevideo. The meeting was spearheaded by two countries well-known for supporting LGBTI rights nationally – Uruguay and The Netherlands – in the first meeting of its kind to be held in Latin America. The focus of the Conference was fundamental breaches of human rights, and close collaboration between governments and civil societies to work towards non-violence and non-discrimination for LGBTI people.

Prominent international experts spoke out against the extreme violence targeting LGBTI communities worldwide, emphasising the primacy of fundamental human rights protections for LGBTI people which have not received the international attention required for global change.

Speaking in a video message, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated that:

“Ending rights abuses against LGBT and intersex people is a great human rights cause at the heart of the UN’s founding mission … LGBT and intersex people are courageously addressing discrimination.  We owe them full support and leadership.  Equality for them will benefit everyone.”

 US Ambassador Samantha Power also called on governments to advance LGBTI rights around the world:

 “First, we must be willing to use all the tools in our toolkit to shift the policies and attitudes of governments that condone or even fuel discrimination and violence against LGBTI people … Second, we must work to integrate LGBTI rights into the DNA of multilateral bodies like the UN.”

 The biggest news from the conference was the launch of a new Equal Rights Coalition. The key purpose of the coalition is to strengthen cooperation, coordination and communication of human rights efforts by governments, civil society and other stakeholders. States and activists discussed ways to build momentum and international consensus on tackling these issues – one way of doing this was to coordinate sharing of best practice information between countries with very different LGBTI legal protections. This welcome initiative risk will increase bilateral cooperation and demonstrates widespread support for principles of equality and non-violence by many countries, debunking the theory that LGBTI rights are solely the province ‘Western’ or ‘Global North’ countries and values. The Equal Rights Coalition already has 29 state members from countries which have traditionally been vocal about LGBTI rights (eg. US, UK, Canada, Sweden) and countries which have traditionally received less recognition for their commitment to LGBTI rights (eg. Honduras, Montenegro, Ecuador, Estonia and Costa Rica).

Given the close proximity to Australia’s federal election and the delay in the new government being sworn in, Australia has not joined the Equal Rights Coalition at this stage. The HRLC is hopeful that the Australian government will seek agreement to join the coalition after the new government has had the opportunity to discuss foreign policy priorities. With Australia’s bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council in competition with Spain and France (who have already joined the Coalition), many international players eagerly await Australia’s decision. The Australian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay Noel Campbell and DFAT representative Victoria Kuczer attended the Conference and actively represented the Australian Government’s commitment to LGBTI rights.

Civil society representatives raised critical concerns about state-sponsored discrimination and violence towards LGBTI people in the 77 countries where homosexuality remains a crime. In particular, LGBTI human rights defenders from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia shared their experiences of intensified attacks – and personal experiences of violence and discrimination. More broadly, Civil society activists highlighted the need for collaborative and consultative cross-cutting regional and international diplomacy initiatives, flexible and “Do No Harm” based funding, recognition of LGBTI rights in the 2030 sustainable development goals, and urgent state action to address the attempted curtailment of civil society and human rights defenders. The conference also provided an opportunity for LGBTI activists whose voices have until recently been overlooked to be heard.

I attended the Conference as representative from Australia with OII Australia’s intersex advocate Morgan Carpenter. Morgan spoke about the harms caused by medical interventions on the healthy bodies of intersex infants and children, and the need to understand the diversity of intersex people’s experiences to recognise their right to bodily integrity. I had the opportunity to provide feedback on civil society concerns about the ‘shrinking civil society space’ and calling on governments to safeguard democratic freedoms by recognising that regressive laws towards LGBTI organisations affect all civil society organisations with ripple effects across borders.

At the HRLC, we will continue to work with international civil society and engage with the Australian Government to ensure that Australia takes a leadership role in these international discussion and other efforts to advance LGBTI rights across the globe.”

Lee Carnie is a Lawyer in the LGBTI Rights Unit at the HRLC. Lee attended the Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference on Non-Violence, Non-Discrimination and Social Inclusion in Montevideo between 12 and 15 July 2016, thanks to the generous funding provided by the Dutch Government and facilitated by COC Nederlands.