Freedom House Remarks Delivered at Meeting of the Ukrainian Constitutional Commission’s Working Group

 Freedom House Remarks Delivered at Meeting of the Ukrainian Constitutional Commission’s Working Group on Human Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities of People and Citizens

December 18, 2015 in Kyiv, Ukraine

Dear Members of the Constitutional Commission and Esteemed Colleagues!

I am honored to share with you remarks on behalf of Freedom House on this important and exciting occasion. We are here not only to discuss the addition of a few words to Ukraine’s basic law, but rather concrete steps towards improving the lives of many Ukrainian citizens - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people - who face discrimination, are denied basic rights and needs, and are targeted with violence because of who they are. In a society where people do not feel secure in their jobs, safe on the street, or protected by the law, a healthy democracy and economy cannot possibly grow. We urge you to send a clear signal that discrimination will not be tolerated in Ukraine on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as well as along other lines by sending to President Poroshenko a draft constitution that has a comprehensive anti-discrimination article.

Indeed, LGBTI people in Ukraine endure regular discrimination and violence for which there is rarely accountability. The most recent example was the June 2015 Kyiv Equality March, which was marred by violent attacks in which nearly two dozen police officers and participants were injured.

In June 2015, President Poroshenko spoke out in support of the Constitutional rights of all Ukrainian citizens without discrimination when asked his opinion about the Kyiv Equality March. This public support for equality before the law is vitally important, but is not enough to ensure that all people enjoy the same rights without distinction. The attack on the Kyiv Equality March and other recent attacks on LGBTI people motivated by hate and intolerance result from the false belief that it is acceptable to discriminate and use violence against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Statements by high-level officials can send the message that this is in fact not acceptable and are an important part of educating society about fundamental principles of democracy such as non-discrimination and equality. More Ukrainian officials should lead the public in this area and speak out in support of everyone’s rights. The Constitutional Commission should also do its part to lead Ukraine to a more democratic, tolerant, and inclusive society by ensuring that the new Constitution protects everyone’s rights without discrimination. By excluding the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity that was included in earlier drafts considered by the Constitutional Commission, the current draft misses an important opportunity to send a message that violence and discrimination against LGBTI people is not acceptable and to establish a legal foundation for combatting such violence and discrimination. Such a message of equality would resonate not only when the new Constitution is finally adopted, but into the future when students study the Constitution in university, when citizens visit government offices for support and services, and certainly when courts defend the rights of citizens when they are violated.

The values of equality and non-discrimination are shared by not only those present here advocating for a comprehensive anti-discrimination provision in the Constitution nor are they foreign concepts. They are in fact key principles of international human rights law and agreements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” According to the UN, under international human rights law “it is unlawful to make any distinction of people’s rights based on the fact that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender” and Ukraine has a legal obligation both to make sure that its own laws and policies do not discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity and that the law offers adequate protection against such discrimination by third parties. Indeed, tolerance, respect, and non-discrimination are values that all countries, including Ukraine, have agreed to uphold. I believe that if you asked Ukrainians whether they supported these values they would agree.

Banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the Constitution should only the beginning of a long-term effort to encourage and support the development of tolerance and respect for others within Ukrainian society. Indeed, even in the countries where LGBTI people are most accepted, there are significant numbers of people who do not understand LGBTI people or agree that they should be equal before the law. The government, civil society, and others should undertake these efforts, in support not only of the rights of LGBTI people, but everyone, no matter their religious belief, their political opinions, the color of their skin, their sex, or their disability status. Ukrainian civil society, including civil society organizations, educational institutions, student groups, the media, religious communities, and others must also do their part to support the development of a strong non-discrimination ethic among the public. Freedom House stands ready to work with Ukrainian civil society to educate the public about the importance of tolerance and non-discrimination for the development of democracy and to support the emergence of this ethic among civil society organizations and institutions themselves.

Making a bold step for equality and non-discrimination by including sexual orientation and gender identity in the draft Constitution’s non-discrimination provision would distinguish Ukraine from other countries, most of which have yet to codify these protections. Indeed, a comprehensive anti-discrimination article that included sexual orientation and gender identity would put Ukraine at the forefront of international human rights protections and would serve as a proud sign of Ukraine’s progress. It would also put into stark relief what is at stake in Ukraine’s struggle with separatism and aggression from Russia and Russian-supported separatist groups. With Ukraine aspiring to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and leadership in the world, not only at home but also at the UN and as a new member of the Security Council, a strong Constitution that is inclusive and is based on democratic values and human rights will only reinforce those efforts.

Ukraine is at a vital pivot point in its democratic development. Your meeting here today and listening to a diverse group of opinions is a testament to the growing strength of democracy and human rights protections in Ukraine. Freedom House supports you in this noble effort and urges you to do what you can to make Ukraine a more equal, tolerant, and democratic country for all of its citizens. Thank you!