Press Conference to Mark International Day against Homophobia

17 May 2013

Press Conference to Mark International Day against Homophobia

17 May 2013
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference to Mark International Day against Homophobia

The global HIV/AIDS epidemic had “come full circle” since its early days, and it was “outrageous” that, despite unprecedented advances in care and treatment, homosexuals all over the world continued to struggle against discrimination and rising infection rates, the Head of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) said today.

“Today we are seeing progress against HIV all over the world,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, said at a Headquarters press conference on the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia.  Indeed, infection rates were down and treatment had made it possible to think of HIV as a chronic illness.  New advances had even raised the possibility of working towards a cure.

Nevertheless, homosexuality remained stigmatized — and even criminalized — in many parts of the world, placing barriers in the way of treatment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, he said.  “It is unacceptable that only 1 in 10 gay men have access to HIV/AIDS services.”

Accompanied by Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, Deputy Head of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Sidibé pointed out that a total of 76 countries still considered it a crime to engage in sexual acts with a person of the same gender, adding that such acts were punishable by the death penalty in at least seven of them.  That presented serious obstacles to treatment services and forced men who had sex with men, in particular, underground, where they became channels of infection for other partners.

He called for a “different kind of activism”, in which a new generation would create broad alliances for social change.  They would not have to work alone, he said, pledging that UNAIDS would continue to support worldwide advocacy to ensure an end to exclusion based on sexual orientation.  The agency was currently instituting a policy of assuring benefits for staff with same-sex partners, and encouraged all employers, across and beyond the United Nations system, to do the same.  “We are proud to walk the talk,” he said.

Ms. Sheriff noted that protecting the human rights of LGBT people was a thorny issue that divided both nations and individuals.  However, that was all the more reason to talk about it.  The international community should remind itself of the need to turn the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into reality for all people, she said.  Indeed, “we cannot protect and promote human rights if we do not include the rights of LGBT people”.  Stigma and discrimination were global problems requiring global solutions.

She said that, in many States, people were turned into criminals simply on the basis of who they were.  Solutions to that problem would need to go beyond laws, she emphasized, calling for commitment by Member States and United Nations leaders.  Most importantly, attitudes and perceptions must change, she said.  “That is the hardest part.”

Urging all the correspondents present to engage in public human rights education, she called attention to a two-minute YouTube public service announcement of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Reiterating that laws criminalizing homosexuality must change, she quoted Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in noting that the world had inherited “nineteenth century prejudice that fuels twenty-first century hatred”.

Asked about a resolution on LGBT rights, adopted in 2011 by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, Ms. Sheriff said it was “historic in many ways”, in particular, because it had been endorsed across an unusually wide range of countries and continents.  Engaging in such a dialogue was already a huge step, she said, adding that the next step would be to see how dedicated human rights mechanisms could tackle the issue.  However, she warned that such progress would take time to achieve.

When asked for more information about HIV infection rates among LGBT people around the world, Mr. Sidibé said that, in many places, the rate of men who had sex with men was up to 19 times higher than that of heterosexual people.  He cited a recent visit to Togo, where 36 per cent of men who had sex with men were HIV-positive, noting that most of them were either married or in other heterosexual relationships.  That meant wives and children also faced the threat of HIV infection.

Responding to a correspondent who sought clarification about benefits for UNAIDS staff in same-sex partnerships, Mr. Sidibé said it had taken some time to enact the policy due to negotiations with Member States and others on the UNAIDS Executive Board.  The policy was scheduled to take effect next week, and would, indeed, extend equal benefits to all staff in same-sex partnerships.

Asked whether any African country had taken “unusual” positions on LGBT rights in international forums, Ms. Sheriff said Malawi had recently decriminalized homosexuality, and that South Africa had long been at the forefront of the gay rights movement.  In Uganda, a long-pending parliamentary bill on LGBT rights had divided the country.  Meanwhile, in Cameroon and across much of Central Africa, homosexuality was still criminalized and States had taken a strong stance against LGBT rights in the General Assembly and in other forums.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.