July 15, 2011

Homophobic and transphobic violence must be stopped

A few weeks ago, a peaceful Pride demonstration in Split, Croatia, was brutally attacked by thousands of hooligans, wounding over a dozen people. The counter-demonstrators by far outnumbered the police officers and Pride participants. The police did not fully succeed in protecting the demonstrators, who simply wanted to raise awareness about the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. These events unfolded after weeks of hate speech, threats, graffiti, flyers and social media inciting to hatred.

This is not the first time a manifestation against homophobia and transphobia has suffered assaults and threats from extremists.

In 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia, the police made heroic efforts to protect the first ever Belgrade Pride, but around 150 persons were injured during the confrontations, most of them police officers. Again, the counter-demonstrators outnumbered by far those marching in favour of LGBT rights.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2010, the authorities had to mobilise a large police contingent to shield the Baltic Pride March from violent attackers.

There is a growing awareness among local authorities that peaceful Pride events must be allowed and protected; LGBT persons have the same rights as others to freedom of assembly and expression. This acknowledgement is of course positive.

The continued need for massive police protection however is very negative. It is high time for European politicians to seriously tackle the phenomena of homophobia and transphobia and their root causes. The first step is to recognise that the problem is serious and that systematic action is needed to promote awareness on all levels in society. Then there is an urgent need to counter all tendencies of discrimination against this group of people - also in official human rights and equality policies.

In the past five years I have monitored the implementation of human rights for LGBT persons in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. The result was recently published in a report: Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Europe.

The report lists a number of obstacles to the full enjoyment of their universal human rights. It shows, for example, that homophobic and transphobic harassment in the workplace and bullying of LGBT persons in schools is common in practically all member states. The official registration of LGBT organisations was obstructed or refused in five countries in Europe, and attempts to criminalise “propaganda or promotion of homosexuality” were identified in three member states.

There has been little response to national studies and reports which flag that a disproportionate number of young LGBT persons see no other way out than committing suicide due to the non acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identity by their peers and families. Very few countries recognise homophobic or transphobic violence in their hate crime legislation.

Transgender persons face particularly severe human rights problems in almost all areas of life. If they want their preferred gender to be legally recognised, in 29 member states they face a legal requirement to undergo gender reassignment surgery, leading to infertility. Some 15 member states even require the transgender person to be unmarried in order to obtain recognition, which entails mandatory divorce if the person is already married.

Too often politicians and policy makers ignore the human rights of LGBT persons when designing policies or drafting legislation. There are disturbing examples of debates in national parliaments which are characterised by a high level of prejudice, bias and outdated information, including claims that homosexuality is an illness

Governments need to pursue legislative reforms and social change to enable LGBT persons to fully enjoy universally recognised human rights. National and international monitoring, including by Equality Bodies and Ombudsman Offices, is needed to measure progress.

Change is only possible if European countries show more genuine political will to address this problem with much more determination than has so far been demonstrated.

Thomas Hammarberg
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

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