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Nelson Mandela: Giving Substance to LGBT Human Rights

11/12/2013 12:09 GMT | Updated 09/02/2014 10:59 GMT

When Nelson Mandela first read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the justness of his cause and the iniquity of apartheid were confirmed. As he retells in his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, he took great comfort from that declaration. He didn't need the UDHR to bestow upon him his rights, but that remarkable document which was adopted by the United Nations 65 years ago (10 December 1948) affirmed the rights that we - across the globe - should all be able to take for granted. And that included the millions of victims of apartheid.

As the negotiations to bring about the end of that wicked and odious regime got under way, Mandela insisted that in any new settlement the human rights of all were to be guaranteed. South Africa's interim constitution placed human rights' protection at the heart of the transition to democracy and, in 1996, the Republic's Constitution put the Bill of Rights centre stage. It is that Constitution with its human rights protection and Constitutional Court which will be Mandela's enduring legacy.

The comfort that Mandela drew from the UDHR is summed up in its first article, which declares: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.' Apartheid was self-evidently antithetical to the UDHR. The apartheid regime therefore abstained in the vote for the UDHR at the UN, and, when Mandela came to breathe new life into his country through the South African Bill of Rights, equality was fiercely promoted and protected.

For many of the survivors of apartheid, equality meant equality for everyone. As such the South African Bill of Rights was the first to protect constitutionally LGBT equality, by including sexual orientation among prohibited grounds of discrimination. The Bill of Rights also guarantees an express right to human dignity. The drafters of the constitution and its Bill of Rights were also acutely aware of the role that gay men and lesbians played in the struggle against apartheid. It is no surprise that an early decision of the Constitutional Court struck down laws, a relic of the apartheid regime and British colonial rule before that, which criminalised consensual sex between adults of the same sex in private , thus confirming that to criminalise LGBT people is a serious and systemic human rights violation (National Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Equality v Minister for Justice, 1998).

Mandela's faith that the UDHR applies to everyone, everywhere and resonates across the globe. The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, the custodian of the UDHR, continues to press home the fundamental importance of human rights and why they are essential for us all. Societies that target particular groups or individuals will undermine the integrity of us all. Today the High Commissioner's Office has launched a new video which connects LGBT rights with human rights. That short message succinctly reminds us of the discrimination and violence that LGBT communities across the world can be subjected to. Despite the lead shown by Mandela's free South Africa, still 76 countries criminalise people for consensual intimate sexual conduct with other adults of the same sex. With criminalisation of sexual identity comes violence, extortion, impunity and even murder.

The UDHR acknowledges our dignity and Mandela, in turn, embodied the notion of human dignity. We all have so much to be grateful to him for, but we who are part of the LGBT communities, owe him something special. He proved to us what it means to all be born free and equal in dignity and rights. His personal journey explained to him that this principle, articulated as a right, has no exception and means what it says. What he showed us is that our right as LGBT people to self-determination is the same as his.