UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

Despite Arab and African countries walking out, the historic first-ever debate on gay human rights at the United Nations in Geneva on Wednesday affirmed the right to equality of all LGBT people.

The debate was part of a process initiated by South Africa when it spearheaded a resolution opposing violence and discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation that was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June last year.

The resolution mandated a report on the matter, which was released in December and highlighted the plight of LGBT people around the world, as well as a debate on the report which took place at the UNHRC this week.

The discussion was opened with a video message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

“To those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, let me say: You are not alone. Your struggle for an end to violence and discrimination is a shared struggle. Any attack on you, is an attack on the universal values the United Nations and I have sworn to uphold,” said Ban.

“Today, I stand with you and I call upon all countries and people to stand with you, too. A historic shift is underway. More states see the gravity of the problem… We must tackle the violence, decriminalise consensual same-sex relationships, ban discrimination and educate the public.”

The opening statement was by the South African-born High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

She called on countries to repeal laws that criminalise homosexuality, abolish the death penalty for offences involving consensual sexual relations, harmonise the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual conduct, and enact comprehensive anti-discrimination laws.

“I am conscious of the divergent view both within and outside the Council on the rights of individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, I am certain that none among you will be willing to tolerate serious, systematic violations of human rights against them”, she said.

Pakistan and Middle-Eastern nations, who had earlier condemned the debate, walked out of the discussion. They were joined by a number of African countries including Nigeria.

“Licentious behavior promoted under the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ is against the fundamental teachings of various religions including Islam,” Pakistan’s representative Saeed Sarwar said. “From this perspective, legitimising homosexuality and other personal sexual behaviours in the name of sexual orientation is unacceptable to the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).”

Despite the opposition, the UNHRC panel reaffirmed its commitment to fighting discrimination and persecution of LGBT people. The debate was welcomed by human rights groups across the world.

“This is a milestone development. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has made it clear that there can be no ifs and no buts. The rights of LGBT people are not special rights. They are the same basic human rights to which everybody is entitled. The debate starts here,” commented Lance Price, Director of the Kaleidoscope Trust.

In a statement, a number of African activists praised “the leadership of South Africa in opening dialogue around the human rights of people with non-conforming sexualities and identities”.

They added: “We urge Member States to take this opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue on this important issue.”

At least 76 countries currently retain laws that either explicitly criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults, or contain vague prohibitions that are applied in a discriminatory way to prosecute LGBT people.

Below is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s opening message to the UNHRC.

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