This year, as part of the celebrations around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), often called Pride Week, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Cambodia is rallying under the theme “I Am What I Am”. This message highlights people’s pride in their identity and calls for society’s recognition of their rights. Many events will take place this week in a local celebration of the global principles of diversity, equality and human rights for all.
Equality begins at home. All of us have a duty to reflect on how we are upholding this fundamental value in our lives, our work and our communities. The United Nations system in Cambodia has embarked on this journey. Ahead of IDAHOT 2015, we have adopted a common position paper setting out our support for equal enjoyment of human rights and for the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Code of Conduct for UN personnel calls on us to “respect all persons equally, without any distinction whatsoever” and to foster “a climate and a working environment sensitive to the needs of
all”. We are looking critically at ourselves to make sure that the UN in Cambodia is itself a workplace that respects diversity – in our recruitment, our employment and our daily management.
What do the issues and experiences of LGBT people in Cambodia have to do with the United Nations? The answer is simple. The rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to everyone. Any violation of people’s rights because of their sexual orientation cannot be tolerated. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it forcefully when he told LGBT people around the world that “any attack on you is an attack on the universal values of the United Nations that I have sworn to defend and uphold”.
Unfortunately, the vision of human rights for all is not yet realised. Around the world, as in Cambodia, some people face stigma and discrimination due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. In practice, this means that people can face harassment, bullying and even violence in their homes, workplaces, schools and communities. LGBT people often do not have access to health and social services and are denied educational and employment opportunities.
But the LGBT community in Cambodia is becoming more vocal and organised, as demonstrated by the Pride activities which grow every year. Policies, such as the recently approved Second National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women, are increasingly taking into account the needs and concerns of LGBT people. Cambodian officials and leaders have also spoken out against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in domestic and international forums. For example, the Cambodian delegation at the 2014 Regional Conference on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment acted as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region by raising the issue of LGBT rights while the Cambodia delegation to the 47th session of the Commission on Population and Development spoke out in favour of recognising that freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is considered as a basic individual right. Cambodia’s first ever national LGBT community dialogue took place, with UN and other partners’ support, in early 2014.
The UN commends these efforts and is committed to continue to support LGBT communities to demand their rights and to support the government in mainstreaming the full scope of gender issues into national policies and programs. Through our own programs across sectors, the United Nations system in Cambodia has a unique opportunity to address issues that LGBT people face. Each UN agency is expected to take action as relevant to its specific mandate. This includes, for example, promoting access to legal rights and justice for LGBT people facing violence and discrimination, encouraging the Education Sector to teach respect for all as well as ensuring equal access to social services, including health and HIV services.
For many people in Cambodia and around the world, Pride Week is an opportunity to speak out about who they really are. For all of us, it is an opportunity to listen to what we can learn from our LGBT sisters, brothers, friends and colleagues. This is the time to ask ourselves whether we are part of the solution or part of the problem. This is the time to ask ourselves what we have done and what more we must do to promote a world where everybody can be who they really are without fear of rejection, stigma or violence. Because isn’t this the most basic and profound of freedoms? To be who we are and to love who we love.
Claire van der Vaeren is the UN Resident Coordinator for Cambodia.