Speech given by Lynne Featherstone on 27 March 2012, on combating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation
I am delighted to be here and I’m honoured to be hosting this conference as part of the UK’s chairmanship of the committee of ministers. I am heartened that so many of you, from across Europe, could be here today. I would like to thank the council of Europe for all their help in making today possible. It is only when we join hands that progress will be made.
Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable to have so many representatives from different countries and organisations gathered in one room to talk about human rights protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGB&T) people. Clearly, something has changed.
Today, I’d like to talk about the progress we have made towards LGB&T equality both in the UK and in Europe, and what our next steps might be.
Progress towards LGB&T equality in the UK
Great progress has been made towards LGB&T equality in recent years, not only in the UK but across Europe too. In the UK, not so long ago, LGB&T people faced repeated discrimination and even violence, simply because of who they were. In Britain, as recently as 1967, people like the pioneer of computer sciences, Alan Turing, could still be prosecuted for homosexual acts between consenting adults.
Turing was forced to accept chemical castration as an alternative to prison - a disgraceful way to treat one of our greatest scientists.
Now, we can be proud in the UK that same-sex couples can have their union legally recognised. And we have just started a consultation asking how we can recognise same-sex civil marriage. Last year the UK government published two action plans, one on LGB&T equality and a separate one addressing the specific challenges transgender people face. These action plans recognise that LGB&T people want to play a part in our society and enjoy the same rights and freedoms as every other citizen. These documents include firm commitments to tear down the barriers to inequality and improve the lives of LGB&T people in all aspects of their lives. The plans outline actions on tackling bullying in school, discrimination at work, improving access to healthcare and adopting a robust response to hate crime - areas where we know we still need to do more.
Progress towards LGB&T equality in Europe
And at European level we are excited about progress.
While we are all, of course, bound by the European convention on human rights, friends across Europe are working hard to make the principles of these conventions a reality for LGB&T people.
In 2010, the committee of ministers adopted its recommendation on combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The recommendation is a major step forward. It provides a comprehensive framework for progressing LGB&T equality right across Europe.
And we warmly welcome commissioner Hammerberg’s recommendations and report, published last June, which will also assist member states in taking action to combat violence and discrimination in this area.
But despite this progress, and despite the fact that homosexuality has now been decriminalised in all member states of the council of Europe, LGB&T people and their defenders can still face deeply rooted prejudices, hostility and widespread discrimination in Europe.
They can face physical violence and verbal abuse.
They can face restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
They can face violations of the right to respect for private and family life.
And they can face violations of rights to education, work and health.
As a consequence, too many LGB&T people across Europe still live in fear and have to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity.
We need to stand in their shoes and just imagine what life would be like if we could not be open about who we are in society with our friends and with our family, without being terrified of being subjected to victimisation or violence.
It is vitally important that we all ensure that tackling violence and discrimination against LGB&T people remains at the top of our human rights agenda. Every country in Europe needs to act as a leader, a catalyst and an advocate for change.
The council of Europe recommendation was a significant step forward. But this is just the beginning of the journey, not the end. It is now vital to build on the momentum created within the council of Europe, and to work together to implement the recommendation.
I know some of us are at different points of the journey and that LGB&T equality will not happen overnight. My message to all of you is this. It’s only by working together, by building new relationships and by opening a dialogue that we can learn from each other and make LGB&T equality a reality.
Many member states are already showing great leadership in advancing LGB&T rights. Last week, the government of Montenegro hosted an event on advancing LGB&T equality in the Balkan states. I applaud the government of Montenegro for hosting this event and for its leadership in the region. I am honoured that the deputy prime minister of Montenegro is here with us today and I am looking forward to hearing about the conference’s success during the panel discussions.
The UK is committed to playing its part. I am proud that LGB&T equality is one of our chairmanship’s priorities. I am also delighted to announce today that the UK will be joining forces with other member states to fund the new LGB&T unit within the council of Europe secretariat. This will go a long way to supporting the unit in its crucial role in strengthening LGB&T rights across Europe.
I’d like to thank the unit’s staff, who are here with us today, for helping organise this event.
We now need to make sure the Unit is well equipped to deliver on its promise. It’s absolutely crucial that, as best we can, we stand behind the unit and support its work.
Today’s event is a blueprint for future action to progress LGB&T equality across Europe. It provides an excellent opportunity to consider the challenges that LGB&T people face and learn from each other’s successes and challenges. I look forward to hearing about your experiences and explore how we can work together to further advance LGB&T equality. I hope it will be just the first of many such debates.