RECENTLY, new laws have been adopted to punish, or silence, lesbians and gays in a number of countries. Such laws, and the resulting discrimination — which often affects transgender people too — violate universal human rights.

Last month, thousands of Ugandans joined a “celebration” of the country’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes gays and lesbians with life in jail and cracks down on human rights organisations that defend them. In January, Nigeria’s president signed new legislation that punishes same-sex unions with up to 14 years in jail. They are among at least 77 countries that criminalise homosexuality. Five — including Saudi Arabia and Iran — prescribe the death penalty for adult, consensual homosexual relationships.

In several countries in eastern Europe and Central Asia, MPs have recently called for laws to punish any attempt to present “non-traditional” — and specifically, homosexual — relationships in a positive light, restricting freedom of expression and assembly. In both Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, MPs have called for severe anti-homosexuality legislation. Brunei’s new penal code, which is due to take effect shortly, prescribes the death penalty for consensual same-sex conduct. In February, during a televised speech to commemorate the country’s independence, the Gambian President called for the country to fight homosexuals “the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”

This apparent hardening of attitudes targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* (LGBT) people may be a deliberate tactic — fuelled by well-funded religious groups — to distract attention from real problems such as poverty. Homophobia panders to prejudice and misconceptions. Among them: the notion that homosexuality is somehow “unnatural”; that gay people are more likely to be paedophiles or target children; that decriminalising homosexuality will automatically lead to same-sex marriage; or that equal rights for LGBT people will somehow infringe religious freedom.

In reality, homosexuality is a fact of nature, observed in every human society throughout history. It has been tolerated for centuries in many societies, and has only recently surfaced as a political issue. There is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuals “target” children more often than heterosexuals do — paedophilia is a crime, whether the perpetrator is homosexual or heterosexual, and nobody wishes to change that. Calling for an end to the persecution of LGBT people is a call to end discrimination and violence, a basic premise of our universal human rights. It is unrelated to same-sex marriage, a topic that societies may choose to debate at the national level. Furthermore, religious freedom does not mean the freedom to persecute, or to act with prejudice and bigotry.

To counter these prejudices, my office last year launched Free and Equal — an unprecedented United Nations campaign to raise awareness of the rights of LGBT people. We did so because human rights are for all human beings. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is just as irrational, just as wrong, as discrimination on the basis of skin colour and just as clearly violates human rights.

Moreover, the resulting violence endured by so many LGBT people is appalling, because laws generate action. Police action — such as the recent raid on a health project in Uganda because it was allegedly “training youths in homosexuality”. Judicial action — such as the trials and jail sentences for people who should not be seen as criminals. And action by members of the public, as one side-effect of such laws is likely to be that people feel they can sanction physical abuse of LGBT people, vandalism to their property, death threats and the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians. Another unintended side-effect is blackmail. Even a false claim that someone is gay may create such reputational damage and legal difficulty that he or she will pay for silence.

Some may argue that time will eventually take care of this problem. In the past, LGBT people faced prosecution by the legal systems of many countries where they can now live freely.

But we cannot wait. If any other group of millions of individuals were to be forced to live with such fear and stigma, the international community would surely unite in condemnation and demand action now. The fact that some countries refuse to recognise the scale of the problem — and that some actively fuel the flames of prejudice — makes it more urgent, not less, to keep pressing for change. The key will be enabling a better-informed debate that dispels innuendo, myth and slander — and reminds us that LGBT people have an equal right to dignity and freedom.

Navi Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

For details on the Free and Equal campaign visit www.unfe.org

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