OAS Marks International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT)

Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) addresses the Permanent Council, May 18, 2016. (OAS Photo)
Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) addresses the Permanent Council, May 18, 2016. (OAS Photo)

Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor addressed an OAS Permanent Council session commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) on May 18, 2016.

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Secretary General, representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and distinguished Permanent Representatives, I am Mike Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State. I am pleased to join you this morning to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.  The United States appreciates the chance to share – and hear – perspectives and views on an issue of interest to many of our nations.

On May 17th, in recognition of this commemoration, Secretary Kerry affirmed “we stand in solidarity with LGBTI persons worldwide, and that we recognize again that all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Secretary Kerry also recalled the famous quote from American abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, who said that “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

The United States is fully committed to the struggle for the human rights of LGBTI persons – throughout the Americas and around the world.  We also recognize that we have plenty of work to do here at home to ensure equality.

For us, the human rights of LGBTI persons are not “special” rights.  Rather, precisely because they are persons, LGBTI persons have the same human rights as other persons.  As human persons, they are entitled to these universal rights by birth. It is an affront to human rights when a person is beaten or killed, or denied access to justice due to their religious belief, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

The United States remains concerned that many countries around the world maintain laws that criminalize consensual adult same-sex conduct.  Mr. Chairman, a number of these countries are located in the Americas.

In some countries, including my own, these old laws have been ruled unconstitutional and are therefore no longer enforceable. But unfortunately, several countries around the world have enacted recently – or are considering – new laws that mandate discrimination against LGBTI individuals and their allies.  We have even seen laws that criminalize advocacy for the human rights of LGBTI persons.

Mr. Chairman, we’ve also seen how political leaders in some parts of the world seek to generate fear of LGBTI persons.  They do this to score political points and to distract from pressing issues such as poverty, corruption, and violence.  Many also use this issue as a pretext for enacting repressive laws to restrict civil society and to silence dissent. We need to call out those who would resort to such cynical methods.

Violence against LGBTI persons – and in particular against transgender individuals is a problem here in the U.S.  But it is also an acute problem in other parts of the Americas, where this violence often takes place with impunity.  One of our most respected congressional leaders recently reminded us that “Every transgender person should be protected from discrimination and have the opportunity to earn a living and take responsibility for their lives on the same terms as everyone else.”  As OAS member states committed to human rights and the rule of law, violence against transgender persons should be of high concern to each of us.

In a June 2015 report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed the widespread abuses faced by LGBTI persons worldwide.  The Commission’s Report found that thousands of people have been killed or brutally injured simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTI persons subjected to violence are often re-victimized through abuse or harassment by law enforcement authorities as they seek redress. As a consequence, violent crimes against LGBTI persons frequently go unreported.

All of us have a responsibility to push back against violence and discrimination.  A failure to deal effectively with violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons can serve to legitimize violence and discrimination on other bases against other persons.

Mr. Chairman, we recognize and strongly support the efforts that a number of governments in our region are making to address this issue. Uruguay, together with the Netherlands, will soon co-host a major LGBTI rights and development conference in Montevideo.  This will mark the first time such a conference will take place outside of North America or Europe.  The United States looks forward to attending at a senior level. I know the Uruguayan delegation will speak more about this Conference today, and we look forward to their updates.

Governments throughout the Americas are also demonstrating leadership on transgender rights.  Mr. Chairman, we recognize your government’s passage in 2012 of a law which allows transgender persons to update and amend their government-issued identity documents without a medical diagnosis.  Governments in Europe and elsewhere are learning from Argentina’s example as they consider similar legislation.

For our part, last year Secretary Kerry appointed the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, my colleague Randy Berry. Since he started his job last year, Special Envoy Berry has traveled to over 40 countries.  He has engaged with senior government officials and brought together civil society, faith and business communities.  He has used those contacts to affirm that we all have a role to play in combatting violence and discrimination and advancing equality for all.  We have found that while cultural and religious norms vary, responsible leaders around the world agree that violence and discrimination are never justified.  U.S. embassies and consulates are standing with LGBTI communities to demonstrate our support. And we continue to work with like-minded governments and other partners as well.

Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, together with eleven other governments and the United States have contributed to the Global Equality Fund.  Since 2011 it has provided over $24 million of support to civil society organizations in 80 countries worldwide. This support enables frontline activists to document violence, to conduct awareness campaigns, and to ensure that LGBTI persons can access justice in safety. We strongly believe that our role is to support civil society in achieving its own goals and ambitions. We follow the counsel of LGBTI community members and organizations closely, and know that many other delegations represented here do the same.

Mr. Chairman, the United States is strongly supportive of the Rapporteur on the Rights of LGBTI Persons who is part of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.  We also support the Commission’s LGBTI Rights Unit.  We would encourage other States to lend their support. The Commission plays an important role in documenting violence against LGBTI persons, and the U.S. relies on its data for our analysis. A June 2015  Commission  report  found that pervasive violence impedes the ability of transgender women to access health care, education and the formal labor market. We look forward to additional reporting and recommendations from the Commission on this subject.  We would encourage other delegations to use this information as well.

The passage of the Pan American Health Organization’s 2013 resolution on addressing the Causes of Health Disparities for LGBT people was historic.  We understand efforts are underway to collect data in the region on the causes of these barriers to care and we are looking forward to that final report.

Mr. Chairman, like all persons LGBTI individuals want to support their families, and live meaningful, safe and secure lives. We look forward to supporting future engagement by the OAS, including within the context of the upcoming OAS General Assembly, on the human rights of LGBTI persons. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.