Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

John Fisher: It's good to be home. One of the hardest decisions of my life was leaving New Zealand to work internationally, but here today at this conference I've never felt more at home and more amongst the brothers and sisters of my country and of the AsiaPacific region. And I trust that you all feel as invigorated as I do to feel part of this great whanau, and to have been able to participate in this amazing event, so kudos to the organizers.

There have been many highlights of this conference, but before going any further one I want to mention is the trans and intersex hui that took place on Tuesday. Congratulations to Jack for making it happen, and to all of the people who participated. I, myself, felt so immensely privileged to be able to feel so welcome in that space, and honestly for me it was one of the most thought provoking and enriching experiences of my life, and that's something that I will take away from this conference and keep with me forever.

At times like this it's natural to reflect a little bit on how far we've come and some of the challenges that still lie ahead. And because I believe very strongly that the personal is political, there are many times in this room over the last few days when I've been taken back to the times when I was growing up in New Zealand, when homosexuality was still a criminal offense. And like many of you I grew up during that period, very much feeling that as a teenager I was the only one, struggling to come to terms with my sexuality at a time when all of the media portrayals were negative, and even worse, I believed the social messages that homosexuals were sick, disgusting and wrong.

And I clearly remember the day when Homosexual Law Reform went through in New Zealand. I was still in the closet; I hadn't told another living soul that I was gay. I was walking to university and on every corner and in the stores and the newspaper stands the main headline was, "Homosexuality decriminalized."

There was nobody else I could talk to about this, but I read those banner headlines and for just a moment the sun, it happened, came through the clouds, and it felt to me as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And for the first time in my life I could stand on the soil of the country that I loved so much and feel that I belonged, and I knew then that there was nothing wrong with me, nothing that needed to be changed. What was wrong and needed to be changed was the attitudes of a society that could have made me feel the way that I did.

Much has changed since then, and much like our own personal struggles, work to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights at the United Nations is a long and slow and challenging process.

Geeta reminded us yesterday of the Gandhi quote, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win." And certainly at the international level, and in our countries around the world, we've long been ignored, we've long felt the stigma of invisibility and silence, we've sustained the ridicule of being laughed at, we've certainly felt the backlash of being fought against; but gradually, bit by bit, I believe that change is coming and that we are winning.

Rosslyn mentioned the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, which I spoke at, and I didn't actually realize at the time that it was the first time that an LGBT person, or a gay man in my case, had addressed a UN World Conference.

I took the floor and there had been many NGO speakers before me, so I felt I was just one of a long line, and as always happens when NGOs take the floor and States lose interest the noise level in the room was rising and rising. And I began reading my prepared speech and suddenly became aware that there was dead silence that had descended across the room. And suddenly people began gathering in front of me, there were cameras going off, and at the end of it a little crowd had gathered.

But what stood out for me was a delegate who came up to me, and I could tell from his badge that he was from one of the Government Delegations, though I couldn't see which, and he came up to me and shook my hand and he had tears in his eyes and said, "Thank you. That's the first time I've heard those words pronounced in a UN space," and then he kind of looked nervously over his shoulder and disappeared into the crowd. And it reminded me, particularly as we see how far we have come these days, that there was a time when one couldn't say the words lesbian or transgender in the UN space, and to do so provoked an immediate and vigorous backlash.

We still face challenges today at the international level. Many of you will be aware that in 2003 Brazil presented a resolution on sexual orientation and human rights. At that point it did not include gender identity although subsequent initiatives have. But when it presented the resolution there was such a backlash that it was deferred for a year, and then for another year, and eventually quietly withdrawn from the Human Rights Council agenda without even being discussed, let alone put to a vote.

Just last year States at the United Nations General Assembly gathered together to vote a reference to sexual orientation out of a resolution on extrajudicial executions, because some States couldn't even tolerate the idea that we should acknowledge that killings against members of our communities are wrong. Thankfully that decision was subsequently reversed, although again, gender identity was not included in the resolution, signaling how far we still have to go to raise awareness and increase respect for the rights of those who are transgender, transsexual and intersex.

One of the themes of this conference has been the Yogyakarta Principles, and I think the cover of the guide is there on the screen, and you have received the Principles in your conference kits. These are a set of principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. They were developed to fulfill a gap in international human rights protection where many States refuse to recognize international human rights law as even applying to those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

Of course the protections are there. They're there in all of the international instruments, but it was necessary, and felt necessary by the participating experts, to meet, to gather together and to put in one document these standards which affirm that everybody has the right to life, that no one should be subject to torture regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, that everyone has a right to freedom of expression, to non-discrimination and access to healthcare and housing and education, to bodily integrity, and to affirm for ourselves our own identities without State interference.

Some people have described the Yogyakarta Principles as groundbreaking, but I actually disagree. They break no new ground. They are simply an affirmation of the fundamental principle that runs throughout international human rights law and is reflected in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: that all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights, and that all human beings includes every one of us; that we are the equal of every other human being on this planet, that we're all connected and we're all entitled to enjoy the same freedom, dignity and rights. It's a principle so obvious that it almost shouldn't need stating, but sadly, too often it does.

As the patterns of human rights violations around the world remind us so tragically on such a regular basis, whether it's a lesbian who is raped in an attempt to cure her of her sexual orientation, whether it's a transgender person who is beaten or killed on the streets, with little State interest or police response, whether it's a gay teenager who takes his own life because he cannot stand any longer the abuse that he faces from his peers, the Yogyakarta Principles continue to have resonance precisely because they remind us that we are all entitled to enjoy these basic human rights, protections, and more importantly they provide us with a tool to remind our governments that they have a solemn responsibility as members of the international community to ensure that our rights are respected just as those of any other citizen, of any other human being.

At the same time we know that our voices will not be silenced, and it's also fitting on a conference like this and in our lives as we move forward to reflect on the progress that we have seen. I mentioned that there was a time when words like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex were not even named in UN fora, but much of that has changed. And if I can make this thing work, this is an excerpt from an address that the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, made on World Human Rights Day, December 10th last year. And in talking on World Human Rights Day, which is the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ban Ki-moon specifically spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York at an event organized to address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. And in his speech he said, "It is not called the Partial Declaration of Human Rights, it is not the Sometimes Declaration of Human Rights, it is the Universal Declaration, guaranteeing all human beings their basic human rights, without exception. When our fellow humans are persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity we must speak out. Human rights are human rights everywhere for everyone."

[applause]

And to me it's an amazingly powerful reminder when we see how we've moved from the days when they just couldn't be named to one where the Secretary General of the United Nations, the highest figure in the UN hierarchy, is taking the floor on his own initiative and calling for all States to end human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

We've seen many great signs of progress in regions and countries around the world as well. One of the powerful new tools that the United Nations has adopted for improving the human rights situation in States around the world is the Universal Periodic Review. It's called universal because every single UN member State, large and small, must come before the United Nations Human Rights Council on a repeating four-year basis and present their human rights situation, receive recommendations from any other State around the world as to how to improve their human rights situation, and give a response and make commitments as to what they will do to address those concerns.

And we've seen tremendous take-up throughout the Universal Periodic Review by LGBTI activists in countries and regions around the world to hold their governments accountable and to make recommendations to decriminalize same-sex conduct, to ensure that trans people have access to government documentation that accords with their self-defined gender identity, to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are included as grounds in non-discrimination acts, to ensure that States undertake obligations to train police officers to better respond to hate crimes against members of our communities. The array of issues is only as limited as the issues that we, as our communities, choose to put before the United Nations.

Of course, States can give whatever responses they wish. Sometimes they are favorable, sometimes they are not, but at least they must respond to all recommendations and answer to the concerns and to the demands of our communities.

A very positive example recently was Nauru, a small Island State, as you know, which presented before the Human Rights Council just about a month ago. And in their own State presentation the Minister of Justice from Nauru said, "Yes, we still have colonial laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct. These laws are anachronistic and we pledge to repeal them." And that, to me, is a tremendous example of how we can use the international tools to make sure that these laws are changed, and how governments across the region are themselves gradually beginning to realize that their own laws are outdated and that they need to change.

We've spoken a number of times at the conference about the Joint Statement on ending violence, criminal sanctions and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This will be presented at the Human Rights Council next Tuesday if it's to remain in full swing, although we gave today I think as a deadline for governments to respond. If you still are in touch with your governments we won't turn anybody away if they still come forward on Monday and beg to be added to the list. I'm pleased to advise that as of now we now have more than 80 States who have supported, and in particular....

[applause]

In particular, in the last 24 hours we've seen support from Guatemala, Ecuador and East Timor.

As we've also heard, however, there is concern about a potential counterstatement, and there's even concern that States hostile to the Joint Statement may try and present a negative resolution which has even greater impact in restricting the rights and the ability of the international mechanisms to address issues of concern to members of our communities. So of course the work will continue throughout next week, both to promote the positive aspects, but also to respond to the challenges that predictably we continue to face.

I mentioned yesterday that one of the States that has supported the Joint Statements just within the last 24 to 48 hours is the government of Rwanda, and this also, I think, is a significant example of how times are changing even within spaces that are difficult. And I wanted to read you just a short excerpt from a speech made by the Ambassador of Rwanda in the General Assembly in December last year when the amendment to include sexual orientation in the resolution on killings came up for a vote. And the Ambassador of Rwanda took the floor before the entire General Assembly of the United Nations and said, "People with a different sexual orientation continue to be the target of murder in many of our societies, and are even more at risk than many of the other groups listed. This is, unfortunately, a reality, and recognizing that does not in any way constitute a call for special rights, but is simply a cry to ensure that their fundamental right, the right to life, a right enjoyed by you and by me, is not violated. To refuse to recognize this reality for legal or ideological or cultural reasons would have the consequence of continuing to hide our heads in the sand, and of failing to alert States to those very real situations which break families. Believe me, Mr President, that a human group does not need to be legally defined to be the victim of execution or massacre. Indeed, Rwanda had this bitter experience 16 years ago. That is why the delegation of Rwanda will vote in favor of this amendment and calls on other delegations to do the same."

And it's clear, I think, that when States from regions around the world are drawing upon their own histories, their own experiences of discrimination, of violence, of massacre, to recognize that we all are part of one human family and to commit to recognizing the equal rights of members of our communities, then there is great hope for the future and great hope for moving forward.

Of course this kind of change has not happened by itself. It happens because of the work and the dedication and the commitment and the bravery of activists in countries around the world, and that's where one of the most powerful new tools for advancing and implementing the Yogyakarta Principles comes in. Many of you will have heard about the Activist's Guide to the Yogyakarta Principles. Yup, I've got it, and this is a copy of the Guide itself. At the top we have the website address, at which you can download a copy of the Guide, and there's also there an order form at which you can order as many copies as you like.

What's powerful about the Guide is that it provides a tool kit for understanding the Yogyakarta Principles in more detail and gives examples of case studies of how the Yogyakarta Principles and the legal standards outlined in the Yogyakarta Principles have been successfully applied by activists in countries and regions around the world. And I have to say, as one of the people who had been involved in the process leading to the adoption of the Yogyakarta Principles, I'm constantly amazed at the creativity and the uses by which activists around the world have applied these legal principles. On their face the Yogyakarta Principles could easily be seen as a dry legal document without much relevance or impact in our lives, but in fact activists have taken them up and used them around the world. In South Africa there is a calendar dedicated to the Yogyakarta Principles with each month dedicated to a different principle and a quote from an activist on what that principle means in their lives.

There's a group that has used the Yogyakarta Principles to lobby for education rights in Guyana.

There's a document which maps the principles against the Nigerian Constitution, and for each Yogyakarta Principle it's compared with an equivalent commitment in the Constitution of Nigeria.

And I have a couple of other examples here as well which I wanted to share with you. This also is a publication that is being produced in Kenya by activists there in collaboration with the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, and therefore representing a great example of a partnership between activists and their national Human Rights Commission to advance these issues within their society.

This is a comic that's been produced in Indonesian – it's in English and Indonesian – by groups within Indonesia, and it's a wonderful example of a comic illustration of the Yogyakarta Principles, telling the story of a young woman who's coming out as a lesbian in school, faces harassment and violence, rejection by her family, but goes on to discover love. And at each stage of her life, in each chapter of the comic, it's compared against one of the principles of the Yogyakarta Principles, whether it's the right to education, the right to be free from violence, the right to participate in family and cultural life, or ultimately, as the book concludes, the right to found a family, which is also one of the internationally recognized human rights.

This one I really like. It's a translation of the Yogyakarta Principles into... I wasn't initially sure what language. Does anybody know what language? Okay, it's actually Lithuanian, as I discovered recently. I just thought it was really colorful, and the inside is even better. I must say our own visual creativity, when the initial Yogyakarta Principles were developed, was rather limited. It's this kind of drab, purple book. But that's the other thing that's wonderful about sharing it with our communities is that since then there have been many more colorful examples and translations that have been produced.

So these are just some examples of the ways in which the Yogyakarta Principles have been given life by activists around the world.

I'll just conclude in relation to the Activist's Guide by mentioning, as I did earlier, that on the website there is an order form at which you can order as many copies of either the Principles themselves or the Activist's Guide in different languages.

And that's our organization should you wish to find out more about our work. That's my little plug there.

But I guess in closing I'd like to say that although the Yogyakarta Principles were developed by international human rights experts they now belong to all of us, as does our struggle for equality more broadly. And having participated in this conference for the last few days, I can certainly say that it could be in no better hands in terms of the next steps. We know that there will be challenges ahead, but when we face those challenges and whenever we feel alone or isolated in our struggles, whenever we feel that we need to take heart, I'd like to ask you to remember this moment and to take a moment now to look around this room and feel the spirit and the energy and the positive engagement of all of the people who are here, and know that you are never alone. We are from all corners of the region, we are from beyond, we are many but we are also one. And when we raise our voices together we know that our cause is just, our spirit is true and as a movement we are unstoppable.

Kia ora tātou.

[applause]

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com