A matter of Principles
Boris Ottokar Dittrich is a Dutch politician and human rights activist. He was a member of parliament between 1994 and 2006. During his career as member of parliament he became famous for his initiatives on typical Dutch issues like same-sex marriage, euthanasia and legalising prostitution. Dittrich is a strong advocate for human rights and has represented the Dutch parliament on numerous occasions at meetings in the United Nations Organization (UN). He currently works for Human Rights Watch in New York City, as the Advocacy Director of the LGBT rights program. In the position for the last five months, he’s been responsible for promoting the Yogyakarta Principles around the world. For him, United Nations Organization should be seen as a forum, a tool to eliminate any forms of discrimination against LGBT people.
“The only problem is that we need to find majority of countries there. That’s the role of the international non-government organizations – help bringing up the issue so that UN can interfere in the debate and adopt a resolution against such behavior. Thus, we have been writing reports about it and introducing the Yogyakarta Principles around the world”, Dittrich says.
In 2003, Brazil presented a resolution on human rights and sexual orientation at the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) harshly attacked it. In the following year, when the Commission work started, Brazil issued a public statement informing that the resolution would not be re-tabled because “there was not enough consensus for its approval.” Behind the scenes, Islamic countries had threatened to boycott the trade summit between Latin American countries and the Arab world scheduled for late that year.
In the following interview, the former lawyer and judge talks about the importance of these Principles and the difficulties in doing his job in countries where there is no real democracy and where homosexuality is criminalized.
. How important are the Principles? And to whom are they important?
The Principles are very important for the LGBT-community. For the first time all human rights on sexual orientation and gender identity have been codified. They show the rights that these groups have. All principles are grounded in existing treaties. They are a standard to all countries in the world how LGBT people should be treated. They are not only important to the LGBT community. Because they are human rights they should be important to everybody, especially to governments, and the international non-government organizations (NGOs) have an important role in this process, that is to put its importance to governments. These organizations must face the fact that discrimination is a problem and they need to address this problem.
How can this be done?
In many countries in the world there’s no real democracy, like in Uganda and Tanzania. In these places homosexuality is a crime and LGBT people are being prosecuted and arrested due to their sexuality. In those countries it is very difficult to make a change and hard to find people to risk their lives to draw attention to the problem of discrimination and homophobia. People who’d bravely say: “Hey, whatever you like or not, LGBT people cannot be put in prison”. So, it’s important that United Nations Organization (UN) intermediate. The idea is to face UN as a forum, a tool to eliminate any forms of discrimination against LGBT people. The only problem is that we need to find majority of countries there. That’s the role of the international NGOs – help bringing up the issue so that UN can interfere in the debate and adopt a resolution against such behavior. Thus, we have been writing reports about it and introducing the Yogyakarta Principles around the world, especially to the United Nations, the European Union Community and the Organization of American States (OAS). The Principles are also a fantastic tool to show that Uganda and Tanzania need to change their laws and policies. But we know that it won’t happen in three years. We need time to convince other countries.
You've been promoting the Principles around the world. What are the main difficulties (in doing it) in some parts of the world, such as Uganda, Tanzania and the Islamic countries, for example?
In Arab countries, like Morocco, on the surface homosexuality is forbidden, but in reality many men have sex with men. They don’t label themselves as gays. So, in such countries it is easier to work with the Principles. One day I went to the embassy of Tanzania to meet a girl who works at the department that deals with human rights. She said: “We have no homosexuals in our country. No Tanzanians are homosexuals”. So, she gave me the example of her mother, to whom she had said she was having a meeting that afternoon with a gay man to talk about homosexuality. Her mother said then: “Be careful and wash your hands after you talk to him”. At the end of our meeting she told me that they will never endorse or support the Yogyakarta Principles in Tanzania because homosexuality is illegal there.
At this moment, Brazilian gay movement fights for the criminalization of homophobia. Why is it important to bring the Principles to Brazil in this context?
It’s wonderful how the Brazilian government is dealing with the criminalization of homophobia, because this way they are giving message to people that discrimination is wrong. Criminalization of homophobia is important because it clearly shows that a society does not accept discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Principles deal with all kinds of discrimination. They have in common that all types of discrimination are based on homophobia. The Principles draw a bigger picture than only criminalization of homophobia.