Statement by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon John Jeffery, MP at the Launch of the Equal Rights Coalition as part of the Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference, Montevideo, Uruguay – 13 July 2016
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, H.E. Mr Rodolfo Nin Novoa
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, H.E. Mr Bert Koenders
Assistant Secretary General of the UN and Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS, Mr Luiz Loures,
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship of Argentina, Carlos Foradori
All ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps
Senior officials representing government
Representatives of civil society and various non-governmental organisations
Ladies and Gentlemen
I bring with me warm greetings from the South African government and the people of South Africa.
For many people, any mention of South Africa inevitably gives rise to memories of Nelson Mandela and his enormous contribution to the world we live in today.
As we are here today to coordinate our efforts at advancing the human rights of LGBTI persons the world over, we also recognise the impact the late President Mandela had on changing attitudes in South Africa about equality for LGBTI persons.
Journalist Mark Gevisser tells the story about how, in about 1996 or 1997, when Mabida was president, a black gay couple had been married in a church that welcomes LGBTI persons. They weren’t married legally, as the legislation which legalizes same-sex marriages had not yet been passed at that stage.
But there was a big dispute among their families when they got married. The family of the one woman went and violently accused the other family of having taken their daughter away. Eventually the situation got so bad that both families ended up in a police station in Soweto wanting to lay charges.
The station commander, who was a young black woman, pointed to a poster of Nelson Mandela on the wall. She said to the two families, ‘Listen, that man, your father, the father of our freedom, says it’s okay for these women to be together. And if he says that, who are you to argue?’ That resolved the matter there and then.
The story shows us that acceptance is key. Respect is key. Tolerance is key.
It means striving for equal rights that apply to everybody, without exception. It is often said that the freedom to love is as fundamental as the freedom to breathe.
The journey towards placing SOGIE issues and the rights of LGBTI persons onto the African agenda has been challenging, although milestones have indeed been attained.
The myth pervading many institutions within African society that homosexuality is “un-African” has contributed towards the hostility LGBTI persons face. As a result, LGBTI persons living in many parts of Africa continue to face victimization, discrimination, and the violation of their rights.
This high level of hostility is reinforced by the many laws enacted or inherited, which criminalize same-sex relationships.
Many states remain opposed to addressing SOGIE concerns which, in turn, results in violations to human dignity, freedom of expression and association. In essence, the fundamental rights of LGBTI persons as human beings are being denied solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Whilst we as South Africa have a common understanding on what needs to be done to advance LGBTI rights, the reality is that there are different approaches to dealing with these issues on our continent. The challenge therefore lies therein in finding ways to advance LGBTI rights in a manner that is most effective.
South Africa hosted the first African Regional Conference on “Finding practical solutions to address violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression” in March this year.
Many contributions were made during this thought-provoking and instructive Conference, with the aim of ending violence based on SOGIE, driving efforts at both legislative and policy levels to actualize this goal and lobbying African governments to live up to their obligations to protect and promote the rights and dignity of every citizen.
In recent years, far more countries have recognized the reality and gravity of human rights violations perpetrated against LGBTI people, and the need to respond effectively.
Governments in all regions of the world have taken positive steps and pursued a variety of initiatives aimed at reducing levels of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
South Africa has, from a legal point of view, achieved much in the area of SOGIE rights. We have the equality clause in our Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
We have a progressive legislative framework. We have legislated against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace. We introduced the Domestic Violence Act that classifies a same-sex relationship as a ‘domestic relationship’, in other words, thus qualifying to receive legal protection in terms of this Act. We have legalised same-sex marriages and both joint and step adoption by same-sex couples. As Government, we are working together with civil society organisations to address issues affecting the rights of LGBTI persons such as hate crimes and discrimination.
A South African newspaper wrote an article called “Love in the Time of Democracy” it tells about a same-sex couple and their two adopted daughters. And the article reads: “The mums are white lesbians, their adopted daughters are black. Before 1994, this family would not have been allowed to exist.”
We have indeed come a long way in our country. But we realise that more needs to be done still – in our country, in our region, on our continent and the rest of the world.
We acknowledge that no single role-player can advance this cause on their own – coordination and cooperation is fundamental. We therefore value existing coordination and cooperation mechanisms and initiatives, such as these.
We welcome the establishment of the Equal Rights Coalition to share information between our States on how best to advance the human rights of, and support inclusive development for, LGBTI persons, and to consider measures needed to protect and advance these rights, working in close engagement with all relevant stakeholders.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development urges us to leave no one behind.
Our collective efforts over these 3 days, and going forward from here, will contribute to delivering on this promise.