“You cannot have progress without struggle,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein during a U.N. Foundation roundtable at the Rayburn House Office Building that CNN Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott moderated. “There will be struggle and the majority will be against the struggle.”
“The idea that you pass a law or have a referendum and then it’s done is never that simple,” he added. “It’s constant fighting all the time.”
The roundtable took place hours after the Australian House of Representatives nearly unanimously approved a same-sex marriage bill. Same-sex couples as of Jan. 9 will be able to legally marry in the country.
Al-Hussein noted in response to Human Rights Campaign Global Deputy Director Jean Freedberg’s question about the LGBTI rights movement around the world that he met with an activist in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana in September.
“He said that Slovenia has made great gains on this front in very short order, but at the same time they are seeing homophobic attacks climb very suddenly, bullying in schools becoming worse,” said al-Hussein. “I think the point that it raises is that it’s a constant struggle. When you’re fighting for rights, you don’t relax for one moment.”
UN campaign promotes LGBTI rights around the world
Al-Hussein — who is from Jordan — has led the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights since September 2014.
The U.N. Human Rights Council less than a month after al-Hussein assumed his post adopted a resolution against anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. The U.N. Human Rights Council in 2016 approved the creation of an independent U.N. LGBTI rights watchdog in spite of opposition from Russia, Saudi Arabia and more than a dozen other countries.
Al-Hussein spoke against the backdrop of growing concern over whether the Trump administration is committed to promoting LGBTI rights abroad.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has issued statements that acknowledged Pride month and the Transgender Day of Remembrance. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and the State Department have both publicly condemned the ongoing crackdown against gay Chechens.
The Washington Blade last week confirmed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randy Berry is no longer the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTI rights abroad. A State Department spokesperson told the Blade the special envoy position will be “retained” in any State Department reorganization and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Scott Busby has assumed its “role and responsibilities” until Berry’s permanent successor is named.
The Blade on Thursday asked al-Hussein whether concerns over the Trump administration’s commitment to LGBTI rights abroad is an opportunity for the U.N. to do more to promote them.
Al-Hussein noted he attended the launch of a Guatemalan version of the U.N. Free and Equal campaign — which seeks to promote LGBTI rights around the world — in Guatemala City on Nov. 17. Al-Hussein pointed out to the Blade that Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, diplomats, business leaders and activists were among those who attended the announcement.
“I am hoping where we see gaps and when we see work that’s needed, we can undertake that,” he said.Al-Hussein told the Blade the U.N. needs to “look in a very detailed way at what we do about discrimination in communities that are already discriminated against.” He said LGBTI rights supporters also need to have “a series of open discussions” with religious leaders and conservatives.
“This is something that we askew,” al-Hussein told the Blade. “We see it as absolutely necessary.”
Trump retweeting anti-Muslim tweets left al-Hussein ‘aghast’
Al-Hussein has publicly criticized Trump over his rhetoric against transgender people, immigrants, Muslims and other groups. Al-Hussein during the roundtable specifically highlighted Trump’s decision to retweet anti-Muslim videos that Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right nationalist group in the U.K., posted on Twitter last week.
“I was aghast by the tweets or the retweeting of the Britain First videos,” he told Labott. “It seemed to be so foolish or it seemed to be driven by a sense of purpose.”
“Why take us to a place where what can accrue from this is immense violence,” added al-Hussein. “We’ve been there before. And you only have to go to a war zone.”