The Charter of the United Nations affirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women . . .”
Times have changed, societies have evolved and attitudes have shifted since the Charter was signed in 1945. Thankfully, many old prejudices have begun to disappear.
Yet equality still remains distant for many. And particularly pervasive is discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“The fight against homophobia is a core part of the broader battle for human rights for all,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the International Forum on the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in The Hague this week.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he continued, “promises a world that is free and equal, and we will only honour that promise if everyone – without exception – enjoys the protection they deserve.”
Removing the threats and barriers to LGBT people requires awareness, understanding and joint action by governments and civil society, backed by development partners. That is why the United Nations in Cambodia is renewing its support to the LGBT community during the annual “Pride Week” from May 12-19.
During 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted the first United Nations Resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, but same-sex relations still constitute a crime in nearly 80 countries. Fortunately Cambodia is not one of them.
Senior Cambodian politicians and community leaders have in fact spoken up publicly against discrimination towards LGBT people. Furthermore, LGBT needs and concerns are beginning to be accommodated.
For example, LGBT people were consulted during the drafting process for the updated National Action Plan on Violence Against Women. The Action Plan contains recommendations for tackling the links between sexual violence against LGBT people and HIV transmission.
However, there are still obstacles to surmount. Reliable statistics are scarce, but many LGBT Cambodians still hide their identities, fearing prejudice, harassment or violence.
The associated isolation and depression exacerbate their vulnerability to drug and alcohol use and to risky sexual practices, notes a UNDP regional report from 2010.
Those who do come out face a vicious circle. According to the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, families sometimes attempt to “reorient” LGBT people through forced marriages.
And stigma bars LGBT people from reporting their mistreatment to authorities.
Less extreme, but just as damaging, similar research shows that ostracism by families and peers denies many LGBT people the chance for an education.
This in turn restricts their employment opportunities, when many LGBT people already struggle to find and hold onto a decent job with fair income. These obstacles sometimes leave them with no choice but the dangerous life of entertainment and sex work.
Lastly, a lack of awareness among health providers and an absence of services targeted at LGBT people (especially men-who-have-sex-with-men and transgender people who sell sex) makes it harder for them to seek the support to which they are entitled: for example, HIV and STI prevention and treatment, legal services or psychosocial counselling.
Since 2009, Cambodian Pride Week has been a moment for LGBT people to celebrate their community. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of LGBT issues in Cambodia; to speak openly on subjects that some may find sensitive, and on how to improve the lives of LGBT people.
This year, led as before by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) and Bandagn Chaktomuk (the national men-who-have-sex-with-men and transgender network), Pride Week will be celebrated with the theme “Different but the same”.
Until Sunday, May 19, people will be assembling in Phnom Penh and elsewhere to celebrate their sexual orientation and gender identity, and to explore how to protect their rights.
Inspired by Pride Week, government, civil society and development partners can all play a role too. We can all work together to foster joint approaches, identify good practices and continue protecting the rights of LGBT people.
To help raise awareness of the latter, OHCHR is issuing a Khmer translation of the core applicable obligations under international law.
LGBT people share the same dreams as anyone else, said participants at a recent UN-led focus group. Finding a partner and having a family with the person they love.
Finding a secure job and becoming economically independent. Being accepted by their families, enjoying legal protection and having the independence to make their own decisions.
So let’s increase our solidarity and continue coordinating our efforts to make Cambodia an inclusive country of diversity and equity: a country where no one is afraid of being who they are.
Claire Van der Vaeren is the United Nations Resident Coordinator, on behalf of the United Nations Country Team in Cambodia.
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Photo: Gay rights activists gather at Independence Monument in Phnom Penh last week. Credit: Scott Howes/Phnom Penh Post