Tuesday, April 29, 2008

If gay and lesbian people are given civil rights, then everyone will want them!

25-04-2008 Den Haag Toespraak

Remarks made by Maxime Verhagen - Minister of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning, and welcome to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today's seminar is the wonderful result of cooperation between a coalition of NGOs and this Ministry's Human Rights Department. I am strongly in favour of such cooperation: human rights policies cannot be thought up or implemented by government officials alone. In order to be effective, we need a strong partnership with civil society. We may approach issues from a slightly different angle, but our ultimate objective is always the same: a world in which every individual's rights are protected. I should like to extend a special word of welcome to the representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Ukraine. Some of you have travelled all the way from your capitals to discuss human rights in relation to sexual orientation. Your countries are among the most progressive in this area. I hope that this morning's seminar will help you to agree on a common strategy for dealing with this issue in international organisations, like the United Nations Human Rights Council. I am happy to welcome you all to the Ministry's conference rooms today. I trust that you will have a productive, results-driven discussion.

About six months ago, I presented a new human rights strategy to the Dutch Parliament. I felt the need to do so, because human rights are increasingly under threat worldwide. More and more frequently, we are hearing the argument that universally accepted human rights standards do not dovetail with certain cultures, traditions or religions. Human rights violations are condoned as a result. This is not acceptable. In 1993, 171 UN member states reaffirmed the universality of human rights at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. True, there was considerable discussion at the time, with certain countries accusing the West of trying to impose its own standards on everyone. But eventually, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was adopted. This Declaration reaffirms, in no uncertain terms, the solemn commitment of all States to fulfil their obligations to promote universal respect for, and observance and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. And the Declaration goes on to state that the universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question. Tradition, culture or religion should not be used as an excuse to depart from internationally accepted human rights standards. There are no circumstances that allow for human rights violations: human rights apply to all people, at all times and in all places. This simple rule lies at the heart of the Dutch government's human rights strategy.

I have placed human rights squarely at the centre of our foreign policy, not only because they are a moral imperative, but also because I believe that a world in which human rights are respected is more stable, more secure, healthier, and wealthier. Contributing to the realisation of such a world is in everyone's best interest.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Eliminating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a specific priority of the Dutch human rights strategy. The reasoning is simple: human rights apply to everyone, and that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Unfortunately, reality is not so simple: in over 80 countries worldwide, sexual acts between people of the same sex are still criminal offences. In a few countries, such acts are even capital crimes. Even in countries that do not criminalise homosexuality, gays are often in a very difficult position - accepted for who they are neither by their families, their government, nor society as a whole. The taboo that surrounds them is still enormous. In such an environment, discrimination and even aggression are never far away.

Dutch international policy is aimed at banning the criminalisation of consensual sex between two people of the same sex; at countering discrimination by governments based on sexual orientation and at promoting social acceptance. We are using various instruments to achieve these goals, ranging from addressing the issue within international organisations - the Human Rights Council, for instance - to funding an expert at the Council of Europe, who, by the way, is also here today. But we are also raising the issue - sensitive as it may be - with the authorities of third countries. When I spoke to my Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov, for example, we talked about human rights in general, and human rights for gays in particular. Our Embassies also engage our development partners in a dialogue on these issues. Over the past year, non-discrimination of gays has been on the agenda of talks in Cameroon, Morocco, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Egypt and Kuwait. What is more, the Netherlands supports civil society organisations in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cuba, Guatemala, Cameroon, Latvia, Lithuania, Mozambique and Nigeria. Dutch civil society also does its fair share by supporting local organisations that promote gay rights. In short: we are trying to do the best we can. The question of how we can be most effective is always on our mind, precisely because the subject is so sensitive. We do not want to do anything that may be counterproductive.

The Yogyakarta Principles, which present an overview of human rights and fundamental freedoms in relation to sexual orientation, are a great help in informing our policies. In my statement to the Human Rights Council last month, I called upon all governments to embrace them. I am pleased that the Dutch House of Representatives adopted a motion supporting my statement, and requesting the President of the House to bring the Yogyakarta Principles to the attention of other parliaments on the International Day against Homophobia on 17 May. This should help in generating awareness and, ultimately, acceptance.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is a button that says: If gay and lesbian people are given civil rights, then everyone will want them! To this, I have only one answer: everyone is entitled to human rights, and everyone should have them. And yes, that includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Let us all work hard to bring the realisation of that dream closer.

I wish you a very productive seminar.

Thank you.

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