Speech by Ian McCartney MP to UNISON LGBT Conference, Manchester, 18 November 2006

McCartney is minister for trade at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

" Outlawed, persecuted and killed for advocating their rights. That is the history of trade unionists in most countries.

It is still the case in countries around the world like Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

And it is also the reality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in most of the world.

Over the last few years Labour Ministers will have spoken to you about the efforts of Labour to tackle discrimination against LGBT people here in the UK.

I think it is worth remembering how far we have come together.

We have removed discrimination in the criminal law,
- in the armed forces
- and at the workplace.

We have introduced civil partnership for lesbian and gay couples and equal rights to adoption.

The law now recognises the acquired gender of transsexual people.

We have changed immigration rules to allow long-term same sex couples to settle in the UK.

We abolished section 28.

And next year we will introduce regulations to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the grounds of sexual orientation.

We have achieved so much together over the last few years.

I pay tribute to the work of the equality campaigns within the Labour Movement and the work of the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights over the last 30 years.

It is not just that you campaigned to change the law. You have changed attitudes, you changed the culture.

Just a few years ago David Cameron voted against allowing gay couples to adopt and complained that the Labour government was obsessed with a "fringe agenda... including deeply unpopular moves like repealing Section 28 and allowing the promotion of homosexuality in schools".

Today even the Leader of the Tory Party says he is in favour of Civil Partnerships.

But let's look beneath the veneer and see what David Cameron's Tories really think.

Just this week George Osborne, Tory Shadow Chancellor, launched 'the campaign for enterprise' a Tory organisation with a manifesto that recommends:
- abolishing tax credits for working families
- opposing all of Labour's family friendly legislation
- and removing protection for sacked workers

The group also proposes giving employers something they describe as 'the right to choose' their own workforce saying, and I quote: "discrimination is not a dirty word"

Scratch the surface and it's the same old Tories.

So many of the founding aims of the gay rights movement have been fulfilled under this government

So much so that some people say that the campaign for equality is nearing an end.

I am not one of those people.

When we still see Tories on Bromley council trying to ban gay marriage

Or when the Tories in Westminster council tried banning the rainbow flag in Soho;

When gay students are still taunted and bullied;

And when gay workers are victimised by their employers or colleagues

We still need a campaign that promotes equality and challenges prejudice.

With so much achieved it is understandable that there is a vibrant debate about what there is left to campaign for.

Today I would like to suggest that the next great challenge for those of us committed to equality is to expand our campaign against injustice beyond our own borders.

As we celebrate our achievements we should pause to remember that the majority of gay people around the world still live in countries where simply being themselves is a crime.

Consensual same-sex relationships are still outlawed in over 70 countries.

In 9 countries they are still punishable by death.

At the new UN Human Rights Council, Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders (Ms Hina Jilani) drew special attention to a variety of homophobic acts over the past year.

- the murder of Steve Harvey, an HIV/AIDS activist in Jamaica;
- the obstruction of LGBT equality marches in Eastern Europe, involving harassment and intimidation by police and nationalist extremists;
- the murder of Nadia Echazu, a defender of transgender rights in Argentina;
- threats and attacks against LGBT groups and individuals in Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Nepal and Venezuela.

These are only a fraction of everyday violations of human rights.

For example, on average in Brazil one LGBT person is murdered every three days, with fewer than 10% of the murderers convicted and punished.

In Colombia, the paramilitary groups engage in "social cleansing" of homosexuals with impunity.

Dealing with these issues on an international basis is never easy:

At the last meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings condemned both State-condoned and State-sanctioned killing of LGBT people.

But Nigeria defended the stoning to death of so called "unnatural sexual acts" such as homosexuality and lesbianism as an "appropriate and just punishment".

However Labour is determined to bring the same determination to international gay rights issues as we have done at home.

International human rights law is clear. Since 1994, the UN Human Rights Committee has ruled that outlawing consenting same-sex relations is a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are clear that sexual rights are human rights.

We have been active in promoting the rights of LGBT people in many international organisations.

At the UN we have been working with Brazil in its efforts to call on states to promote and protect the human rights of all their citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.

But the strength of opposition has been too great to even get the matter discussed in the last couple of years.

Through the EU we have tried - so far in vain to persuade the Economic and Social Council of the UN known as ECOSOC to grant consultative status to NGOs representing LGBT people.

Countries that practise discrimination against LGBT people have systematically blocked this.

The UK will be a member of the ECOSOC panel in 2007 that grants consultative status and we will use our position to argue strongly in favour of non-discrimination.

Working with our European partners we have been raising with individual countries the cases of people arrested, tortured or killed on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

In recent months we have protested to Nigeria about the current Bill before the Nigerian Parliament that not only prohibits gay marriage, but also punishes membership of an association advocating LGBT rights with a maximum of 5 years' imprisonment.

At the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the rights of LGBT people are respected in member states. It is unacceptable that two member states, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, continue to criminalise consenting same sex relationships.

We have supported LGBT groups in raising their voices and we will continue our efforts to ensure that sexual orientation is included in the OSCE work programme on tolerance and non-discrimination, including on hate crimes.

In the end, all the issues involved in the rights of LGBT people boil down to the simple issues of fairness, equality and justice.

Human rights belong to everyone. Sexual orientation is not a qualifying factor. Cultural differences do not excuse the abuse of basic human rights.

Where governments discriminate in denying rights to LGBT people, they are almost invariably in breach of their international obligations.

Many of the world's worst human rights abusers are particularly virulent in their hatred of homosexuals.

Robert Mugabe sent a chilling warning 10 years ago to LGBT people in Zimbabwe saying:

"Let them be gay in the US, Europe and elsewhere.... They shall be sad people here."

Since then the gay community has suffered alongside trade unionists, feminists, political opponents and the rest of Zimbabwe.

The story is much the same in dictatorships around the world. Attacks on the human rights of the gay community are often part of, or a precursor to, a wider assault on a people's freedoms.

And where LGBT rights are under fire, so too are the rights of workers to organise.

Brothers and sisters, across the world millions of our fellow citizens are frightened to simply be themselves for fear of imprisonment, torture or death.

They live in societies still blighted by stigma, prejudice and shame. Their suffering is unseen and unheard, they suffer in darkness. Our solidarity can shine a light on their cause.

When they have the courage to speak up and speak out we must stand beside them. And when they have no voice, we must break the silence.

I am proud to be a member of a government that has fought injustice at home, and I am determined to do what I can to fight it on behalf of my fellow human beings around the world.

We can only do it together. "