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More progressive abroad than at home

By Silvan Agius  -  18.07.2013 / 04:15 CET
The EU's guidelines on the rights of sexual minorities abroad should be followed by more action at home

On 24 June, the European Union's Council of Ministers adopted a ground-breaking foreign-policy document entitled “Guidelines to promote and protect the enjoyment of all human rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and inter-sex (LGBTI) persons”. These guidelines, drawn up by the European External Action Service (EEAS) are a comprehensive, legally binding document that instructs European Union institutions and member states on how to help progress the rights for LGBTI people when dealing with third countries and in international forums. These guidelines replace the non-binding ‘toolkit' adopted in 2010, they include references to the human rights of inter-sex people, and enhance the scope. They call for actions to combat discriminatory laws and policies; combat LGBTI-phobic violence; and promote equality and non-discrimination. In short, the EU now has a state-of-the-art framework for the promotion of greater recognition of LGBTI human rights internationally. This is an extraordinarily fast-paced development and deserves to be praised.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the EU's internal policy. The need to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation was included in the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, and in three different cases since 1996 the European Court of Justice has clarified that EU gender-equality legislation also applies to transgender people. Despite this, the EU continues to be slow in developing its legal package on LGBTI people's human rights, and does not yet have a coherent internal policy framework on LGBTI issues. More worryingly, the European Commission has dismissed as unnecessary a call backed by nearly half the member states for the development of an LGBTI equality roadmap. Current “actions” are said to be “making LGBT rights a reality”, the Commission says.

The contradiction between external and internal policy has never been more conspicuous. The adoption of the external-policy guidelines has highlighted the need for an equally robust internal policy framework. Unless the EU acts accordingly, it will not be taken seriously by the third countries that the guidelines address.

On 17 May, the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency published the results of a survey that found that discrimination against LGBT people remains rampant in all member states. About 25% of the 93,000 respondents said they had been attacked or threatened with violence in the past five years. Many continue to live in fear of hate and discrimination; 67% of the respondents across all EU member states were scared of holding hands in public with their same-sex partner.

Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for fundamental rights, who commissioned the report in 2010, welcomed the report, but she promised no new targeted action by the Commission. A ‘roadmap' is already in place, and she has acted consistently against homophobia and transphobia, she told the European Parliament's civil-liberties committee on 19 June. She claimed that her ‘roadmap' has “three pillars”: legislative proposals and initiatives; enforcement of EU law; and assistance to NGOs.

But if the Commission really had such a ‘roadmap' in place, why has it been so shy about publishing it? The EU has clear strategies on gender, disability and Roma integration, and they are all public.

And how are the EU internal policy “actions” addressing abuses? The Fundamental Rights Agency survey is clear on problems of bullying in schools, of legal recognition for transgender people and access to healthcare. Moreover, some EU member states – notably Lithuania, Hungary and Romania – have witnessed a surge of homophobia and transphobia in the discourse of politicians. In Greece, police have targeted and rounded up transgender people.

This is not to point the finger at the European Commission. Rather, we are acknowledging the fast progress made by the EEAS and the excellent guidelines that it has adopted and the need for the EU's internal policy to match that commitment. The guidelines have shown that where there is the will, there is a way.

Silvan Agius is the policy director of ILGA- Europe, a group representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in Europe.

© 2014 European Voice. All rights reserved.

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