“There are 17 sustainable development goals all based on a single, guiding principle: to leave no one behind. We will only realize this vision if we reach all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In too many countries, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are among the poorest, most marginalized members of society… Studies show that gay and lesbian people suffer disproportionate discrimination and abuse. They are rejected by their families… kicked out of their homes… and pushed out of school. Too many of our LGBT brothers and sisters are jobless, homeless and struggling to survive.
The situation of transgender people is even worse overall. They have higher rates of homelessness, poverty and hunger. For individuals and their families, this is a personal tragedy. And for society, it is a shameful waste of human talent, ingenuity and economic potential.”
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, remarks at the High Level LGBT Core Group Event, “Leaving No-One Behind: Equality & Inclusion in the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” New York 29 September 2015
At the United Nations in March 2011, Vanuatu was one of 96 states that signed the “joint statement on ending acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity” (SOGI). The statement includes condemnation of violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization and prejudice based on SOGIE that undermine personal integrity and dignity. It also includes condemnation of killings and executions, torture, arbitrary arrest, and deprivation of economic, social, and cultural rights on those grounds.
In November 2016 at the UN General Assembly, Vanuatu voted in support of the mandate of the Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. An independent expert’s role would be to assess the implementation of international human rights instruments with a view to overcome violence and discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and identify and address the root causes of violence and discrimination.
Despite taking positive steps towards the recognition and protection of SOGI human rights in the UN arena, in reality there are very few legal protections against discrimination against a person based on their sexual orientation and gender identity at home. While consensual same-sex activity is legal in Vanuatu under the Penal Code, the only prohibition on “sexual preference” discrimination is in the Teaching Service Act 2013. Aside from that, the Constitution of Vanuatu only has general human rights protections and there is no general prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. The National Youth Authority Act is the only bill that recognizes persons with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity by affirming that “youth means any person aged between 12 to 30 years of age, including those with disabilities and of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity.”
This year in January, Vanuatu underwent its Universal Periodic Review in Geneva. The (UPR) is a unique process created by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and involves the review of the human rights situations of all UN Member States once every four and half years. It is a state driven process and an opportunity to for each state to identify key human rights issues and challenges as well as to periodically declare what actions it has taken to improve human rights situations and fulfil human rights obligations.
This year Vpride provided input and support into a report prepared by Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation for the United Nations Human Rights Council in respect of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Vanuatu.
The report highlighted how Vanuatu lacks laws and policies which aim to reduce stigma on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics; and to protect persons against hate crimes and violence and from discrimination in employment, education, health care, housing and the provision of goods and services on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
The report by Vpride recommended to the United Nations Human Rights Council to amend the Constitution to add sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics as prohibited grounds for discrimination; to enact anti-discrimination legislation and to conduct public awareness campaigns to reduce stigma against SOGI people; amongst other things.
Recommendations to Vanuatu from other countries included an amendment to the constitution to incorporate the prohibition of discrimination based on sex and gender, to put in place a comprehensive strategy to eliminate discriminatory gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes and to put in place measures, including anti-discrimination measures and awareness-raising campaigns, to eliminate discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.
Vanuatu then had to consider which recommendations it will accept and implement, defer or not support. Unfortunately it did not support these recommendations and the next UPR will be happening in four and a half years. The question to pose to gatekeepers is what will Vanuatu’s human rights story be in that time? How are we going to ensure a peaceful, just and inclusive society that is supported by responsive and capable institutions, delivering quality services to ALL citizens, as stated under the society pillar in the People’s Plan, our localized version of the SDGs? Vanuatu has been taking positive steps towards inclusion and equality, but we still have many more to take.
This article was originally published in the September edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Life and Style magazine