05/16/2012 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why a U.N. Official's Video Could Get Her Arrested

If Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights, were to speak in St. Petersburg and say that the best way to combat homophobia is to discuss it at school, she would risk being arrested! It's something to think about as we prepare to celebrate the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) on May 17.

This week Pillay gave the answer to why such a day was needed in a short video produced by her U.N. office and released for IDAHOT 2012. The U.N. High Commissioner explains in the video that all over the world people of all ages are being discriminated against at home, at school, at work, or in other everyday situations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They ask to be treated fairly and equally and not to be singled out and discriminated against.

They're not asking for special or new rights, she says. There is nothing new or special about the right to life, security of the person, or the right to freedom of discrimination. These rights are universal and enshrined in international law. Yet they are denied to millions of people simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In more than 76 countries, being in a same-sex relationship is a criminal offense. On a daily basis LGBT people are singled out for their sexual orientation or gender identity and are arrested and sometimes tortured or killed.


Pillay calls on countries that criminalize homosexual conduct to repeal their discriminatory laws and ban their discriminatory practices. "We must punish hatred and violence, not love," she says in the video. "The best antidote for homophobia and transphobia is to educate adults and children."

Unfortunately for Pillay and indeed anyone who would like to advocate the obvious -- that human rights apply to all human beings, and that the principle of universality includes LGBT people -- she could be arrested for these words in several countries in the world.

In March, 2012 a draconian law went into effect in St. Petersburg. Similar laws are in effect in four other Russian regions. The law claims to protect minors from "gay propaganda" by ensuring that any public act upholding or supporting homosexuality that a minor might see is rendered illegal. The laws in these Russian regions are so broad and vague that wearing a t-shirt with a text that lesbian families should get equal treatment with heterosexual families can get you arrested.

Earlier this year Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted in a media interview that Russia "was trying to protect the society from homosexual propaganda," contending that his approach was acceptable as rights of sexual minorities were nothing but an "appendage to the universal values." Under the guise of protecting minors and upholding public morals the Russian authorities are debating efforts to legitimize homophobia at the federal level. In late March, a draft law of the kind in force in St. Petersburg was introduced in the Russian State Duma.

In Europe the prohibition on talking about homosexuality in public is not limited to these five Russian regions. For example in Ukraine two private member bills are being discussed in parliament banning "homosexual propaganda." The members of parliament who took the initiative to submit these bills claim they are doing so to protect minors and stop the spread of HIV. And in Moldova, five cities proclaimed their territories "a homosexuality free-zone." These proclamations, although they have no legal status, are intended to prohibit any discussion about homosexuality in the public sphere.

Pillay would have a tough time in Ukraine or Moldova speaking out in favor of human rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgender people.

Or take Nigeria, where a "Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2011" is pending in parliament. On the surface, the Bill appears to limit itself to introducing criminal penalties for marriage ceremonies between people of the same sex, with a penalty of three years in prison. However, the bill's provisions extend far wider. The bill seeks to criminalize anyone who "witnesses," "aids," or "abets" such a relationship.

It could also penalize any human rights defender who seeks to stand up for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people in Nigeria, as well as their friends, families, and colleagues. The penalty for those who "witness," "abet," and "aid" a same-sex relationship is five years imprisonment and/or a fine. Pillay should be warned.