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Decriminalizing homosexuality step to genuine legal equality

“Decriminalizing homosexuality is an essential first step towards establishing genuine equality before the law”

Matilda Bogner
11 October 2011

Calls for truly universal application of human rights have been gathering momentum at the global level. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon have both called for measures to counter discrimination and violence against those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI). Last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched an appeal for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and for every country to ensure equal rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said, is just that. It is universal and it applies to us all—whoever we are, whatever we look like, whoever we share our lives with. No exceptions.

Pacific Island countries have supported this call, with Australia, Fiji, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu signing onto a joint statement of over 80 countries at the UN Human Rights Council condemning violence based on sexual orientation in March this year. The statement expressed concern at the continued evidence in every region of acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including killings, rape, torture and criminal sanctions.

This message was underlined by a historic Human Rights Council resolution on 17 June 2011, expressing grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The resolution requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to commission a study, to be finalized by December 2011, documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against LGBTI individuals, in all regions of the world, and how international human rights law can be used to end these violations.

Laws criminalizing same-sex relations between consenting adults remain on the statute books in more than 70 countries globally, including the Pacific Island countries of Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu. Such laws are an affront to principles of equality and non-discrimination and fuel hatred and violence—in effect giving homophobia a State-sanctioned seal of approval.

Recognising this, Palau and Nauru accepted recommendations to decriminalize homosexual acts during their appearances at the Human Rights Council. Pacific Island countries have now all completed the first round of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of their human rights situation. Each country will return to the review in four years time to see what progress has been made in implementing their human rights commitments. During the most recent UPR meeting at the Human Rights Council, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea rejected recommendations relating to the decriminalization of sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex – citing cultural or religious reasons.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is encouraging countries to make progress in the area of LGBTI rights, and in particular the decriminalization of sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex. In a speech on Human Rights Day (10 December) 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity… Where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day”.

Decriminalizing homosexuality is an essential first step towards establishing genuine equality before the law. But real, lasting progress cannot be achieved by changing laws alone. We must change minds as well. Like racism and misogyny, homophobia is a prejudice born of ignorance. And like other forms of prejudice, the most effective long-term response is legal equality backed-up by information and education.


Matilda Bogner is the Regional Representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for the Pacific, based in Suva, Fiji.

• OHCHR leads global Human Rights efforts and works to promote and protect the Human Rights that are guaranteed under international law and stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

• OHCHR is headed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, who coordinates Human Rights activities throughout the UN System and supervises the Human Rights Council.

• OHCHR Regional Office for the Pacific covers 16 countries: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

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