Forging transnational bonds
Ladies & gentlemen,
History is not a linear movement towards greater freedom for all. There is a road, I think, that will eventually lead us to equal rights, equal respect and equal protection for lesbians, gays, bisexual people and transgenders. But this road will not be a motorway. It will be bumpy and winding.
Hivos, organizer of today’s conference, belongs to the big Dutch family of humanist organizations. Humanists tend to look at religion with suspicion. They might be alarmed to notice that Europe - Western Europe – is an island of secularism in a sea of religiousness. The rest of the world is becoming more and more religious, so it seems. That does not bode well for the promotion of LGBT rights. More religious zeal often means more prejudice, more bigotry, less tolerance.
Still, I do not think that we should oppose religion to LGBT rights. Take Brazil. A religious country. But only last Sunday Sao Paulo hosted the biggest Gay Pride event in the world, with 3 million visitors. Or take South Africa, a country I know quite well. Equally religious, but also one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriages. In Turkey, tolerance towards LGBT people is growing gradually, an activist from Lambda Istanbul told the European Parliament last year, despite the fact that the country has been ruled by an islamist party since 2002. Of course, LGBT people in these countries still face violence, exclusion and contempt. But even slow progress can have a considerable impact. After all, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey are leading countries in their regions.
International human rights treaties do not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Fortunately we do have, since 2007, the Yogyakarta Principles. This authoritative declaration affirms that existing human rights standards oblige states to protect LGBT people against violence and discrimination. Already, the Yogyakarta Principles have been used successfully in court cases, for instance in Nepal.
It would be even better, of course, if the Yogyakarta Principles were converted into hard international law. If human rights treaties explicitly prohibited all forms of discriminations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. On a global scale, we are nowhere near that goal. Within the European Union, however, it should be possible. Wouldn’t the EU be a shining example for the rest of the world, if it included an explicit ban on discrimination of LGBT people in its basic treaty? If such a ban on discrimination were to figure prominently amongst the rights that the EU must respect, wouldn’t that be a great mission statement for the EU’s foreign and development policy?
In fact, we had such a treaty, in 2005. The first international treaty that contained an explicit and binding prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. What happened to it?
Well, more than 60 % of the Dutch people voted against it. So did 55 % of the French. Those of you who are from outside Europe, feel free to look puzzled. Those of you who are from the Netherlands or France, feel free to look guilty…
After the defeat of the European Constitution, as the treaty was called, the Dutch government drew a bizarre conclusion. It set out to strip the treaty of its most valuable part, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as if that were the part that the no-voters objected to. To my regret, the Dutch government got its way. The new Treaty of Lisbon no longer lists any fundamental rights. It only contains a reference to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This still makes the Charter legally binding, including the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation within the realm of EU policies. But this prohibition has lost its prominence and visibility. It’s no longer shining out from the treaty.
Surprisingly, many LGBT people in The Netherlands voted against the European Constitution. Despite the treaty’s ban on LGBT discrimination, they were afraid that Europe might take away their rights. In their view, the EU was dominated by Polish-style homophobia. Even though, at the same time, a once very Catholic country like Spain was on its way to legalize same-sex marriages. And even though, only six months before, a majority of the European Parliament had rejected a homophobic candidate for the EU Commission, Rocco Buttiglione. The movement for LGBT rights was and is making progress in Europe. But, apparently, people only remember the bad tidings, such as the prohibition of a Gay Pride march or the recent attempt in Lithuania to prohibit information on homosexuality for young people. The lesson is, I think, that the international LGBT movement should not only cry foul at its defeats, but also stress its successes. Or else LGBT people in countries like The Netherlands might lose hope and turn their back to the world, betraying their fellow LGBTs who are worse off, as happened in the 2005 referendum.
Fortunately, as for concrete laws against discrimination, the EU is still moving in the right direction. My predecessor for the Dutch Greens, Kathalijne Buitenweg, managed to get broad support in the European Parliament for a new law that extends the ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Discrimination would not only be outlawed in the labour market, but also in the market for goods and services, the health system, education and social security. Countries that want to become a member of the European Union, such as Turkey and Serbia, will have to implement the EU’s anti-discrimination laws.
I just mentioned the case of Buttiglione, the homophobic candidate for the European Commission who was sent back to Italy by the European Parliament in 2004. This parliamentary vote was very interesting because political affiliation, not nationality, determined its outcome. The Polish socialists, for example, voted with the rest of the European socialists, against Buttiglione. Upon their return in Poland, and possibly against their will, they became ambassadors of European tolerance in a country where LGBT people still have a hard time. This might teach us that transnational bonds, such as those between parties who belong to the same political family, can be conveyor belts for greater understanding of sexual minorities. Later today, you will discuss the possibilities for the LGBT movement to team up with the women’s movement. It might be worthwhile to find out if cooperation can be established with other movements of a cross-border nature, such as trade unions. Dutch trade unions, for instance, have links with unions on all continents. Perhaps they could be spurred, when visiting their counterparts in Africa, or when adopting joint declarations, to make the case against discrimination of LGBT workers more often?
Of course there is work for politicians to do as well. Increase funding for LGBT organizations around the world, for instance, also from the EU budget. I hope that, as Greens, we can forge a majority to do so in the European Parliament. The EU should make it easier for LGBT activists to obtain a visa for the Schengen countries. As for asylum policy, the EU countries should live up to the promise they made when they adopted a common refugee definition. In countries where homosexuality is a crime, prosecution amounts to persecution. So people who risk prosecution if they return to their country should be entitled to protection in Europe.
Moving and migrating, either voluntary of involuntary, is part of the life story of many LGBT people. Even within a relatively tolerant country as The Netherlands, many LGBT people leave their place of birth to live in the city, where they can find greater freedom and a more exciting life. Many LGBT people in developing countries dream of the big city as well, for the same reasons. And for some, Cape Town and Istanbul are not big enough. They long for London or Paris. Some manage to get there, as a labour migrant. Who would deny them the opportunity to live out their dreams, even if it means working hard to pay for them?
Frankly, I’m not sure if Hivos would give LGBT people the opportunity to move to Europe for work. I’m a bit puzzled since, last April, Hivos and the other Dutch development NGOs published a comparison between the European election programmes of political parties. They praised my party, the Dutch Greens, for taking into account the interests of developing countries better than other parties did. I’m grateful for that. But on the specific issue of labour migration, the NGOs sided with a party that does not want any labour migration at all. A populist left-wing party that even wants Polish workers in The Netherlands to go home. A party that says Poles are stealing our jobs and would be happier at home. Would that be true for a Polish gay who has found a job in Amsterdam?
Have the objections to the EU’s current plans for a blue card - the brain drain argument in particular - led the Dutch development NGOs to adopt a zero labour migration stance? If so, they would be overlooking that people from developing countries can have very valid reasons for migrating. Especially Hivos, which has the slogan ‘no borders for people’ in its logo, should understand that. A blue card is better than no card at all. For a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, it can be a ticket out of hell.
It's not up to us to decide if LGBT people are better off in their own country or in a more tolerant place in Western Europe. The same goes for LGBT activists. Some pay a high price for their activism. They have no choice but to go into exile. Of course I hope that those of you who fight against discrimination in countries full of homophobia and transphobia can return safely. I hope you will get home with new energy, new ideas and new allies. If that's the fruit of this conference, Hivos can be proud of it. I wish you all good luck. You will need it.