International: The marginalisation of LGBT rights within the United Nations framework

AWID interviews Stephen Barris from the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) - an organisation that was recently denied consultative status at the UN.
AWID: The International Lesbian and Gay Association – ILGA- is dedicated to combating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Can you tell us about your work?
SB: At the root of ILGA's work is our faith in networking and on giving LGBT people the chance to voice their concerns themselves: ILGA is above all a platform for LGBT groups. When it was created some 28 years ago, it was from the start, a network of good-willed people who wanted to react to cases of homophobia and believed the best way to do so was by breaking the isolation LGBT people and groups lived in most countries. Times have changed, Internet has in many ways changed our lives but things were much different back in 1978. ILGA has worked on some major battles: getting homosexuality off the WHO list of diseases, struggling for major human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International to include LGBT rights in their agenda.

Mostly, the work of ILGA, I think, has been and still is working with the LGBT groups to organise internationally. We do so by organising conferences where LGBT groups can decide of their own agenda in a specific region of the world... An emerging area of work is helping some LGBT groups which have achieved most of what they have been fighting for for years, in renewing their agenda, by including a twinning for example with another group in a less fortunate area of the world. Our european office is in many ways the model of what we want to achieve in other regions of the world: a regional office with a board elected by LGBT groups of the region, a magazine and website, a political agenda and intense lobbying of international institutions, regular conferences to better service our members. ILGA is also very much involved in trying to get the LGBT movement a representation at the UN, as any other representative of the civil society. We are currently working on the organisation of our next world conference which will take place in Geneva, at the same time than the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. An occasion to lobby the UN but also to elect the heads of our movement: ILGA is still very much a democratic organisation, it is not in any way a ''top down'' organisation. Its major strength lies in its ability to mobilize its members around the world. This has especially be helpful lately when the ECOSOC committee asked to prove we had members in countries where homosexuality is still criminalised.

AWID: On January 23rd, in a disturbing move, the UN Economic and Social Council denied ILGA and the Danish Association of Gays and Lesbians (LBL), the right to Consultative Status at the UN. What does this mean for LGBT persons worldwide?

SB: In simple words, it sadly means some countries do not want LGBT groups to enter the UN and defend their rights. We are well aware that a UN decision in favour of the human rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people is not going to radically change the life of millions of persons in the world. Change needs to happen locally. The ECOSOC decision is important because the UN should be a common house for all - and its Commission on Human Rights should be the biggest institution defending the rights of all in this world. The first speech ever given in the United Nations was given in ILGA's name in 1992 when we still had observer status at the UN. Since we lost it in 1994, ILGA has never ceased to be present at the UN. In the last few years, we have brought about 50 LGBT activists to testimony, to take part in panels and lobby their national delegations. Many governments simply do not want the issue of same sex to be addressed at the UN. Their strategy is simple: they ignore us. What happened in New York in January is another worrying signal of how radical some governments are becoming.

AWID: How was this decision influenced, and were you afforded the same due process as the other 11 organisations who were admitted as Observers?

SB: On which grounds were ILGA and LBL rejected? The committee does not have to give any specific reasons. As a matter of fact, the fax we got from the ECOSOC secretariat does not give us any reasons why we were denied consultative status. In December, while they were preparing the January session, we received a series of questions: they were basically doubting the fact ILGA had members in countries where same sex is illegal, namely India and most countries in Africa. They asked for the administrative proof that those groups were registered with the local administration. This is obviously impossible, but even the groups which do not have such a certificate allowed ILGA to give their names to the ECOSOC. Those groups are illegal because they simply do not have any alternative!

Obviously, they also asked ILGA in which ways the association made sure its members do not condone pedophilia. Groups that caused the loss of our ECOSOC status in 1994 were expelled a long time ago, ILGA's constitution has been amended and the association has put in place a process that offers the maximum guarantees any such group can not become a member. It is obvious though it is not enough and never will be: LBL for example never had any history with pedophilia.

Did they explain why it was rejected? At the end of the story, the main issue is that many governments cannot publicly accept their homophobia. At this day and age, it would obviously be hard for any diplomat to say LGBT are not human and for that reason do not enjoy the same human rights. But it is exactly what they are doing!

Did we get any support at the ECOSOC?

The Danish and German diplomats made very strong statements in our favour. One German diplomat accused the governments sitting at the table of homophobia, telling them they will only be able to prevent a debate on homosexuality at the UN for so long. The German Foreign Office has been funding ILGA's initiatives at the UN for the last two years, along with the Swedish Foreign Office. The German diplomat simply asked the others present if they seriously thought his government would support an organisation that promotes pedophilia. He also told them that in May, three other LGBT organisations will be considered by the ECOSOC and, that one day or another, the ECOSOC will need to address the issue. Many Human Rights NGOs supported ILGA as well. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch sent a protest letter to Condoleezza Rice asking her to explain the reasons behind the negative vote of the UN. It was signed by over 40 US organisations, including ILGA members such as IGLHRC or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

AWID: Obviously, you are going to campaign rigorously against this decision, particularly at the ILGA World Conference, which is to be held in March. What are the next steps?

SB: ILGA's application at the ECOSOC was part of a broader campaign led by Philipp Braun, a German activist. In 2005, we helped five other LGBT groups to apply for ECOSOC. As I mentioned before, 3 others will be considered in May. They are LSVD, Germany's national LGBT federation, CGLQ, Coordination Gay et Lesbienne du Quebec and ILGA Europe, ILGA's European branch. ILGA is organising its presence at the UNCHR next March: we hope to have four panels at the UN including one on the ECOSOC rejection and one on Islam and homosexuality.

With ILGA's conference taking place in Geneva at the same time, ILGA is simply in line with the mandate given by its members at the last world conference in Manila in 2003: work for a debate to take place at the UN on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is a bit like coming out as gay or lesbian to your family: waiting for them to invite you to come out is no strategy!