A young man is chased by a violent mob, targeted for no reason other than his identity - because of who he is. His only prospect of escape is to jump into the sea. He can't swim. He drowns. Two leading human rights activists advocating for his cause are murdered. Another activist is forced out of the country to seek asylum overseas. These tragic events happened to Nokia Cowan, Steve Harvey, Brian Williamson and Gareth Henry. As these names betray, this is not Syria, Iraq, South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is Jamaica; a middle-income country, with a vibrant civil society and free press (incidentally with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state). What had these men done to be so vilified? The answer is simple. They are gay.
Today is UN Human Rights Day, which commemorates this day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that proudly records the human rights that attach to everyone by virtue of our shared humanity. Yet, 67 years on, the universality of these human rights is not being felt by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) men and women around the world. Whereas state-sanctioned apartheid may have ended, and state-sanctioned racial segregation and religious intolerance may now be limited, the state-sanctioned persecution of LGBT people continues on a global scale.
Like millions of other LGBT people in countries where homosexuality is a crime, these Jamaican men lived a life of persecution. Consensual same-sex intimacy continues to be outlawed in 78 countries, home to 2.9 billion people, of whom around 175 million are LGBT. The full force of the state is used against them. Of course, racism, sexism and religious and other intolerance continue to occur all over the world, yet for LGBT people their persecution is written into the laws of the land and conducted by the state. These millions of men and women may be arrested, imprisoned and in some cases executed solely on the basis of their identity. Laws that criminalise homosexuality not only invade into the most private aspects of one's life, but also criminalise LGBT people's sense of self.
These laws leave LGBT people outside of the law and vulnerable to harassment, violence and abuse from state agencies, such as the police, but also from assaults by neighbours, employers, even family members. These men and women live a half-life, exposed and vulnerable to physical and psychological harm, unemployment, bribery and sexual exploitation. Simone Edwards was shot in Jamaica because she is a lesbian. She survived and somehow made it to the Netherlands where she claimed asylum. All the homeless gay kids in Kingston live with HIV. A trans kid, born a boy, was murdered by a mob in a frenzied attack. Her last words were, "I am a girl."
UN Human Rights Days offers time to reflect that there is still work to be done to ensure that states adhere to even the very basic aspects of UDHR. This is not a lofty aspiration to end all human rights abuses and to bring peace on earth. Rather, it is a call to end state-sanctioned persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, which are as irrational as race, colour, gender or religion. It is an affront to us all that 78 countries are permitted to make criminals of millions of men and women solely on the basis of whom they love or how they identify. The UN and courts around the world have persistently informed governments that criminalising homosexuality breaches international human rights law. Let us be clear to these governments, human rights have not forgotten LGBT people, but it is they who have forgotten the meaning of human rights and what underpins those human rights values.
With human rights comes democracy and the rule of law. We have seen the governments of criminalising countries ban LGBT rights civil society organisations, remove LGBT peoples' freedoms of speech with "gay propaganda" laws and use allegations of homosexuality to silence political opponents. Politicians scapegoat the LGBT community for political points and give undue weight to the voices of religious institutions in apparently secular states. It is no accident that there is a direct correlation between authoritarianism and criminalisation of homosexuality, for countries which criminalise do not respect the fundamental democratic rights of all their citizens.
Nor is it a coincidence that countries that don't criminalise and uphold human rights are more economically viable. With inclusive democracies comes inclusive wealth. Business invests in inclusivity. Tormenting LGBT people is bad for business, bad for wealth creation and bad for health. It undermines the human rights project.
Human rights apply to everyone. No one, not even LGBT people, are left behind.
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