16 mar 16
16 mar 16
Speech delivered at the LGBTI conference in Kiev, Ukraine

Sophie in 't Veld spoke on Tuesday at a conference in Kiev on LGBTI rights. Read the full speech here:

It is and honour and immense pleasure for me to deliver today's opening speech for the international conference on LGBTI issues and the European integration of Ukraine. Today's event is about hope and opportunity. It is about the future of Ukraine and Europe.

During the Maidan revolution, Ukrainians made a clear choice in favour of European values and principles. As Member of the European Parliament, and as a Dutch liberal, I wholeheartedly welcome closer cooperation between the EU and Ukraine. For the obvious geopolitical and economic reasons, but above all to jointly promote and protect our shared European values. Democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, justice, a reliable public administration at the service of the citizens, and a society in which people are truly equal.
I am pleased we are together today, forming an alliance for the promotion and protection of those same shared values. Because they are under pressure. Change is never easy and progress is not always linear. There will be leaps ahead, but there will also be setbacks. But fundamental rights are very precious and worth fighting for.
Fortunately there is a lot of good news. A few examples:

Fifteen years after the very first same sex wedding in Amsterdam, today same sex couples can marry or have a civil union in no fewer than 22 EU member states.

Until 1991 homosexuality was considered a disease, and even a criminal offence in many European countries. Today, discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is banned by law, and there is a growing body of law and case law of both the European Union and the Council of Europe providing real protection against discrimination.

The resounding "Yes" to same sex marriage in the Irish referendum last year, recognition of same-sex unions in Greece, Cyprus and Italy, or the Maltese law on Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics, show us progress is possible in countries where until recently LGBTI issues were the biggest taboo.

Ten years ago, in many Central and Eastern European countries gay pride marches were banned and often ended in violence. I remember the 2006 Riga pride, where we had to run from homophobic hooligans. Last year the Europride took place in sunny Riga, and it was a huge celebration, showing Riga as a city embracing diversity.

Until recently, many LGBTI people were living in the closet. Today, heads of government, government ministers or mayors are out and proud, including in countries that were previously under Soviet rule.

Since last November, we can add the Ukrainian Labour Code reform to the list of good news, in which discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the work place is banned. An encouraging step forward. I also welcome the very supportive stance of the Ukrainian political leadership. I realise it was a hard fought battle, and the real work starts only now. The law has to be applied in practice.

We are also very pleased that the Ukrainian government has issued an LGBTI action plan. Its proposals are really a leap forward - in all areas of life. There are many governments that should take Ukraine for an example. But of course the strategy will only have succeeded if it yields results. So I would appeal to the Ukrainian government to now translate the good policy objectives into legislation. Such legislation would not just make Ukraine meet European standards, it would make Ukraine a leader.

If we compare the situation of LGBTI people today, with, say 25 years ago, a lot has been achieved. However, much more must be done, both in the EU and Ukraine, to make further progress and to avoid backsliding. Within the EU, although overall we note much progress, discrimination, harassment and violence against LGBTI persons are still widespread. Some countries are explicitly banning same sex marriage in the constitution, and in Slovenia a mere 20% of the voters in a referendum managed to overturn the same sex marriage law that had already been approved by parliament. Pride marches are being banned or obstructed and conservative governments try to limit the rights of the LGBTI community. That is why the European Commission, guardian of the Treaties, needs to put forward a strong LGBTI action plan to safeguard the rights of all EU citizens. It is regrettable that a common EU LGBTI strategy was torpedoed by the Hungarian nationalist government. We urge the Dutch government to make fresh attempts to reach an agreement before the end of the Dutch EU presidency at the end of June.

Ukraine is heading in the right direction, but it is only just three years ago that the Russian-style "anti-gay propaganda" law was under consideration of the Verkhovna Rada.

Changing the law is not enough, more must be done to change attitudes. And LGBTI people must feel they are truly safe and free. Homophobic hate speech cannot be tolerated. If people are afraid of violence, discrimination or exclusion, they are not free to be who they are, not free to speak out. In a free and democratic society, no person should have to remain silent or hide their identity. It is for the authorities to ensure and protect the freedom of speech. It is the duty of political leaders to contribute to a climate where people can speak their minds freely, without fear.

Some political leaders have made homophobia to the core of their nationalist, anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-democratic agenda. Leaders like Putin or Orbán use homophobia to distract from their own failure. Failure to end corruption. Failure to create economic growth and jobs. Failure to eradicate poverty.

They claim equal rights for all is a "Western" or "European" invention, that clashes with "traditional values". Well, maybe so. But many traditions are backward, and we have abandoned them for very good reasons. We do not burn witches anymore, either. It is called enlightenment. Progress. In April 2001 my country, the Netherlands, was the first country in the world that allowed same sex couples to get married. But that did not happen overnight. The very first proposal to legalise marriage between same sex partners goes back to 1969. Only from 1994 onwards, when for the first time a government was formed without the Christian Democrats, it was possible to start working on a legislative proposal. And you can be sure there were many people who considered it was "against traditional values" to allow same sex couples to marry. But attitudes do change. Today most Christian Democrats have no issues with same sex marriage. The best example is Ireland, once a stronghold of the Catholic Church, where last year a massive two thirds majority said Yes! to same sex marriage.

Where church leaders of all major religions seem to be stuck in the past, more and more people discover that equal rights for all are perfectly compatible with religious values. While the Vatican still does not really accept LGBTI people - despite a slick PR campaign intended to make us believe the Vatican has become liberal - the average Catholic in Europe is very relaxed about it. In the European Parliament Christian democrats are fairly supportive of LGBTI rights. Not as much as liberals, greens or socialists, but certainly more than in the past.

But conservative religious leaders are still the main driving force behind anti-LGBTI campaigns. I note a growing presence of arch-conservative and fiercely anti-gay evangelical lobby groups in European politics. They are very loud and politically influential. Lately they have become close allies of anti-EU, anti-immigration parties. These parties apply double standards. They loudly denounce homophobia in islam, while at the same time being fiercely anti-gay themselves. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, was prominent in the aggressive campaign against same sex marriage in France. A leading MEP from the German Alternative für Deutschland claims that the euro and homosexuality (interesting combination) will destroy our society. And in the European Parliament, all these parties consistently vote against LGBTI rights.

Some of these parties are actively supporting a citizens' initiative, a kind of EU wide petition, trying to collect signatures to force legislation banning same sex marriage throughout Europe. They will not succeed, but it is telling that they try. It is very clear: nationalism, anti-EU sentiments and homophobia are closely related. Inversely: most pro-European parties are also most supportive of equality and fundamental rights.

Fundamental rights and minority rights are not just a fancy toy for loony lefty idealists. They are not "Western European" values either, but universal values. They make society as a whole a better place for all. Countries that embrace diversity are more prosperous, free and stable. The richest places in the world are cities that are a real melting pot, cities open and tolerant, where creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship thrive. Diversity benefits everyone. That is why we need to stand shoulder to shoulder for diversity and fundamental rights.

In that spirit, I already cast my postal vote for the Dutch referendum on the EU Ukraine Association Agreement that will be held on 6 April. My party, D66, and I say 'yes' to closer cooperation, 'yes' to a stable democracy, 'yes' to a modern and inclusive Ukrainian society. It is regrettable that anti-EU forces, both left wing and right wing, are using the referendum on cooperation with Ukraine for their own political agenda, which has little to do with Ukraine. Is it just a coincidence that all these parties are admirers of the Russian government, some openly, some more discretely?

My party will be campaigning all-out for a Yes. We want to support those forces in Ukraine that strive for modern, transparent and efficient public administration, those who aim for economic reforms and innovation, those who fight corruption, and most of all we support those who want to make Ukraine a modern, open, inclusive society, where all citizens are equal, where all can freely be themselves. A country that makes full use of the potential of the people. All people.

There is still a long way ahead to achieve full equality in Ukraine, and to eradicate homophobia. It will take courage and perseverance. It will not be easy, and there will be backsliding at times. But you are not alone, this is not just your fight, not just the fight of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and intersex people in Ukraine. It is our joint fight, the fight of all those who stand for a society that treats everybody as equals. Where you are not discriminated against because of whom you love. Where you do not face violence merely because of who you are.

A conference like today's is a very important event. It creates visibility. And visibility is needed to eliminate prejudice. It provides information and knowledge, essential for combating ignorance. It raises awareness, precondition for changing attitudes.

It is crucial for people to speak out. Opinion leaders and public personalities have a big responsibility. I would call on them: don't stay silent. Speak out in support. I also call on all those parents, brothers and sisters, class mates, colleagues, friends of LGBTI people: speak out. Your voice makes a big difference in the lives of others.

Let's not leave the homophobes to dominate public discourse. They are very loud, but they are not right.

People took to Maidan two years ago with a vision. Let's join forces and make their vision a reality.
Thank you NASH MIR Center and partners for hosting this two-day conference in this wonderful city of Kiev. I wish you all a colourful event!