RIGA - [Editor’s Note: The Following is an edited transcript of the speech delivered at the conference on “Freedom of Speech and Assembly” by Randy Berry, the US Special Envoy for Human Rights of LGBTI persons. Speaking on June 19 in Riga, this was Mr Berry’s first visit to Latvia, and the first time a US special envoy has attended a EuroPride event. Mr Berry was appointed to his position this February, and is the first person to hold such a position in the US State Department.]
Thank you all for allowing me to join you here today. I would particularly like to thank the organization Mozaika for the important work they do here in Latvia promoting LGBTI rights and equality. As I travel from country to country in my new role as the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, it’s incredibly exciting and inspiring to see these movements, these celebrations. It’s a reminder that despite the heartbreak and the setbacks we see in some regions there is reason for hope. Because the truth is we’ve made tremendous progress in the fight to advance these fundamental rights and freedoms. More and more, I’m struck by the welcome I receive, by how attitudes and beliefs and even policies are shifting in ways we couldn’t have anticipated even just a few years ago.
That said, there are still too many LGBTI individuals around the world that face discriminatory laws and practices, practices that attack their dignity, undermine their safety, and violate their human rights. We each have a responsibility to oppose this tide of violence and discrimination. Morally, it’s the right thing to do; there’s no question about that. But it’s also the smart thing to do: greater protection of human rights leads to greater stability and prosperity—not in some cases or for some societies but for all societies in all cases.
In this spirit, I’d like to lay out a few core principles that can guide us as we continue marching forward toward our shared goal of justice and equality for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
First, human rights are LGBTI rights and LGBTI rights are human rights. This emphasis matters; it underscores our belief, which is that equality for LGBTI persons is not a ‘special’ or ‘boutique’ issue, but a core human rights issue. All people are deserving of human rights, but LGBTI persons have, for too long, been unjustly excluded from this conversation.
Progress on LGBTI issues and broader human rights is a powerful indicator that a country is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that progress in all countries. In some cases we have seen backsliding, marked by attempts by governments to use new legislation and other means to shrink space for civil society.
What does this backsliding look like? Here’s one example: in the past two years, we’ve seen laws enacted or proposed in several countries seeking to restrict public discussion of sexual orientation under the guise of “protecting minors” from information on so-called “non-traditional sexual relations”.
These laws, sometimes called “anti-propaganda” laws, are often vaguely worded and arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression and of assembly.
They also contribute to ongoing persecution of members of the LGBTI community, including young persons who identify or are perceived as LGBTI. The United States is deeply concerned about developments in this vein in Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, and Uganda.
Government-sponsored anti-LGBTI initiatives like the ‘propaganda ban’ suggest that homophobia is officially sanctioned, and in some cases can effectively legitimize those who would act violently on such prejudice. Prohibiting expressions of support for LGBTI individuals is not the way to promote social harmony; rather it can lead to intolerance, discrimination, societal divisions, and in some cases violent assaults.
Here’s another backsliding example: Recent and proposed “foreign agents” legislation requires that NGOs that receive funding from abroad register as foreign agents. This is a problem because often times our best work is done by civil society actors. They have the best knowledge of what is happening on the ground. These partners need to have space and freedom to act.
Both types of laws—anti-LGBTI propaganda laws and foreign agents laws – are used to shut down LGBTI advocacy organizations and silence activists.
We believe that expressions in support of the human rights of LGBTI individuals or for other human rights-related purposes, such as the wearing of pride symbols or other acts of peaceful protest, must be protected: they constitute an exercise of the universally recognized freedoms of expression, association and assembly. We will continue to engage countries passing these laws, or attempting to do so, and remind them of their international legal obligations to uphold these basic human rights.
When countries deny the human rights of their LGBTI citizens, they threaten the human rights, fundamental freedoms and dignity of all people. By standing for the human rights of LGBTI persons, governments, businesses, and individuals defend and protect these principles for everyone.
As Secretary Kerry has said, “The places where we face some of our greatest national security challenges today are also places where governments deny basic human rights to their nations’ people, and that is no coincidence.”
When freedoms of expression, assembly and association are practiced, societies are self-correcting and require much less outside pressure to do the right thing. We need to continue to support human rights defenders and civil society – including here in Latvia and in the Baltics – so they have that space to help their nations do the right thing.
There is still much work to be done, but let me be clear: The United States will continue to promote and protect the rights of the LGBTI community. We will continue to speak out against the marginalization and persecution of LGBTI persons. And we will continue to encourage other nations to affirm, through their laws and their practices, the equality and dignity of all people.
Thank you again for having me here to celebrate the progress we have made and to identify the challenges that lay ahead. I wish you the best with your work.