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SPEECH/12/358

Cecilia Malmström

European Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs

A need for strong European leadership to combat discrimination

ILGA-Europe Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in Europe 2011

Brussels, 15 May 2012

Introduction: A "lack of political leadership"

I am very honoured to be here today to speak at this event where the first annual report on the human rights situation for LGBTI people in Europe is being launched.

And I am really looking forward to taking part in the discussions here today.

But first, I would like to say a few words about the current situation in Europe. I will start with the help of last year's Nobel laureate in literature, Tomas Tranströmer:

"The truth is there on the ground

but nobody dares take it.

The truth lies on the street.

Nobody makes it his own."

For me, these words, these few short sentences, describe what is happening in Europe right now.

I have been in European politics for many years, as a Member of the European Parliament, as Minister of EU Affairs in Sweden and now as European Commissioner. I have seen governments come and go and I have seen new policies take shape and be put into practice. But what I have witnessed over the last couple of years makes me extremely worried.

We see governments in some Member States being held hostage by nationalistic and xenophobic parties. We see a trend towards nationalism and we hear talk of closing borders. We see media freedom being threatened within the EU. We hear homophobic speeches and hear about violence against LGBTI people.

In short, what we are witnessing is not the development of a more open and tolerant society. It is rather the opposite.

Different scapegoats get the blame for this trend. It's blamed on the economic crisis or on migrants coming to Europe in the hope of building a better life for themselves. Or it's all the fault of policies cooked up by Eurocrats in Brussels.

But, for me, this blaming is not the essence of the problem.

The real reason for this development is the lack of people standing up to it. And there is a lack of political leadership.

"The truth is there on the ground but nobody dares take it."

There is a lack of courage, a lack of commitment and a failure to take our values seriously. This holds true for politicians, governments, companies, but also for ordinary citizens. Far too many of us decide not to stand up for our beliefs but to look the other way.

Easy solutions seem to be dominating most of the political agendas in EU countries today. I have noticed this when it comes to migration policy, which is the area I am responsible for in the European Commission.

But you can find this in many other political areas, and especially when it comes to fundamental rights.

In time of crisis, who has the time to stand up for fundamental rights?

"The truth lies on the street. Nobody makes it his own."

Take the example of women's rights in the Arab world after the Arab Spring: women were part of the protests and the fantastic democratic revolution. But as soon as the situation calmed down, women's rights were forgotten. Women are still being treated in a humiliating way and are not fairly represented in the political parties.

How far have we come today in 2012?

But let us return to Europe and to the growing nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance. What does this mean for gay people?

Well, the consequences are plain for all to see. Pride festivals are being disrupted, gay people are falling victim to hate crime. Gay people are discriminated against and are victims of other forms of intolerance.

A serious example is what occurred in the Czech Republic with “phallometric testing” being used during asylum procedures in some cases. It was a practice that consisted of testing the physical reaction to heterosexual pornographic material of gay men who had filed a claim for asylum on the basis that they had been persecuted for their sexual orientation.

This was medieval in its method and a huge violation of the individual’s right to privacy. As soon as we found out about the existence of this practice, we contacted the Czech authorities and, in May last year, we received an official confirmation that the practice was no longer in use.

Within the EU, there are still several Member States that don’t acknowledge same-sex marriages.

I come from Sweden, which in many respects is considered to be a very progressive, liberal and tolerant society. It is also a society where a good friend's boyfriend walking back late at night from a nightclub was severely beaten - unprovoked.

Of course the perpetrators claimed it was not unprovoked, but the truth is that they were only provoked by the fact that this man was openly gay.

It's getting better

We have still a long way to go before we can claim to be living in a tolerant Europe – a Europe where equal rights are fully respected, both in theory and in practice.

But we must not forget that European Union membership has contributed to improving the situation for LGBTI people around Europe - and that progress has been made.

The Copenhagen criteria require applicant countries to pay full respect to human rights, and the Union has also made clear that human rights apply to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

As a result of this, all candidate countries and states applying for membership have abolished legislation banning homosexuality. And I have heard that there are positive developments in the Balkans.

There are other small signs of positive developments when it comes to gender identity recognition at national level. And if we look outside Europe, I don't think that any of you could have missed the clear and very important signal Obama sent last week.

So some things are getting better. But we must not stop here.

What more needs to be done?

I have already mentioned that we need more and stronger political leadership. But what does that mean?

To me it means that we must first identify and recognise that fear and ignorance are at the root of many people's intolerance. But then we have to show leadership by showing we are not afraid to challenge those fears and to find solutions to the problems that exist.

And what is essential in all this is that these solutions are based on fundamental principles and values such as freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, openness and tolerance.

In Europe, this should not be too difficult. We have treaties signed and ratified by all Member States. And the treaties could not be clearer: they all stipulate that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is to be banned!

That means that all 27 EU Member States are obliged to live up to these rules and principles and that their political leaders also have a responsibility to set a good example for the rest of the world when it comes to the respect for sexual minorities and the fight against discrimination.

As guardian of the treaties, the Commission is strongly committed to combating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and making sure that these treaties are enforced.

At the EU level, the Employment Equality Directive adopted in 2000 prohibits discrimination in the workplace. And we are working to complete the EU legal framework against discrimination.

We are cooperating with Member States on public policies combating discrimination and promoting equality through an exchange of good practices and seminars on mainstreaming LGBTI dimensions in different areas.

In my portfolio, Home Affairs, we have reinforced Member States' obligation to consider gender as a possible source of persecution.

We have also included provisions in the asylum package directives that we are now negotiating and which are aimed at increasing the protection afforded to asylum seekers who have gender-related claims.

The directives stress that Member States should implement the EU rules without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

And having a same-sex spouse should not constitute a barrier to family reunification.

The Commission has also asked the Fundamental Rights Agency to conduct a survey to obtain a complete picture on the discrimination, hate speech and hate crime against LGBTI people in all EU Member States.

I suspect that the results of the survey will make it obvious that we also need a comprehensive strategy within the EU to be able to really address the problems and improve the situation.

Political leadership not enough

So, at the European level we are trying to make sure that laws do not discriminate against LGTBI people and we are supporting seminars, workshops and facilitating best practices.

But the situation will not be improved merely with political leadership, laws, seminars or workshops.

An extremely important role must be played by a vigilant civil society. NGOs, political parties and governments have an important role to play in trying to change attitudes in favour of tolerance and a respect for sexual minorities.

Nowadays you can easily launch campaigns on Twitter, Facebook etc. But it is important that there are not only campaigns but also real people behind the webpages, supporting projects on the ground. Working with young people must be a particular priority.

But non-discriminatory laws, best practices, seminars, a vigilant civil society - will not be enough either.

Homophobia runs so much deeper. Homophobia is a negative attitude and feeling towards LGBTI people. How can we really influence people's attitudes and feelings?

We all have a part to play.

We all have a responsibility to shoulder.

We must all remain vigilant.

We must all make sure that no matter where negative words are uttered and no matter by whom - whether it be a cherished family member, a great colleague or a good friend – that these negative words do not go unquestioned.

I think you know the kind of situations I am thinking of. It could be a derogatory phrase used by a friend at a dinner you are hosting.

But in order not to alter the happy atmosphere in the room, perhaps you just nod and try to change the subject? But this is exactly when we must interfere and ask the uncomfortable questions: what does your good friend really mean?

I have witnessed the power of good people, I have seen what can be done when we come together to make a change for the better. Walking in the Pride parade in Warsaw some years ago, I was filled with hope. We can make a change in the world. We can build a more tolerant and open society.

As a Commissioner I promise that I will remain vigilant and never silent. I will stand up and question injustice wherever I come across it. I am sure that you all will do the same.

To come back to the words of Tomas Tranströmer again:

"The truth is there on the ground

but nobody dares take it.

The truth lies on the street.

Nobody makes it his own."

We must all pick up the truth and make it our own!

Thank you for your attention!


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