10th December 2010 New York, USA

Human Rights Day at the United Nations

by Sarah Mann

Sarah is a British diplomat who has just finished a three-month posting to the UK Mission to the UN (UKMIS) in New York working primarily on human rights issues. 

Today is my last day working at UKMIS in New York, which makes it a very sad day for me.  But it is also a good day on which to finish a three month tour working primarily on human rights in the UN General Assembly’s third committee.  It is somehow fitting to finish on Human Rights Day.  And even more fitting that my last official meeting is a moving and important event in honour of that day – a panel discussion on ending violence and criminal sanctions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

One of the most controversial issues in recent years has been that of LGBT rights.  Now just to be clear,  we’re not talking here about special rights for LGBT people.  We’re talking simply about ensuring their enjoyment of the human rights that belong to everyone.  As the UN Secretary General pointed out, human rights day is not celebrating the “partial” or “sometimes” declaration of human rights.  We are celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This is why one of the most disappointing moments in this year’s third committee was the removal of a reference to sexual orientation in a resolution on extrajudicial killings.  It was a sad reminder that some believe human rights are not universal, but can be denied on the basis of objections to a person’s behaviour or identity. 

Today’s event was a testament to the importance of fighting for these references, if that was needed.  It was also a reminder of the “reality on the ground”, of the serious rights abuses that many face on a daily basis.  The UN is not known for emotive and personal meetings but this definitely countered that stereotype.  It combined personal testimony from human rights defenders who literally risk their lives in the fight for equal treatment for LGBT people with powerful contributions from the United Nations Secretary-General, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and US Permanent Representative Susan Rice.  The support of such leaders is essential.  Listening to them made me hope that, in the next few weeks, we can take that small step forward that we took backward in third committee and, as Ambassador Rice promised, win the argument to reintroduce sexual orientation language into the extrajudicial killings resolution. 

I still find it shocking that this debate is still being had more than 60 years after the Universal Declaration was signed.  And it seems to me that the question of people’s freedom to openly express their sexual and gender identity and fully enjoy their human rights will become ever more polarised.  This is difficult.  It is difficult to be a part of a debate which you feel should already be won, and it is difficult to listen to views that fundamentally oppose the principles you hold most dear.  But, as with all massive changes, we will only reach the place we want to end up by taking incremental steps.  The debate itself is – one has to hope – a sign that progress can and will be made.

About Dominic Meiklejohn

I was born in Woking, outside London, in 1967 and attended Merton College, Oxford University, graduating in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. After university, I worked for HM Customs and Excise…

I was born in Woking, outside London, in 1967 and attended Merton College, Oxford University, graduating in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

After university, I worked for HM Customs and Excise before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1990. After working for the European Community Department, I learned Polish and began a posting at the British Embassy Warsaw, where I headed the British Know How Fund for Poland (1993-96). In 1997, I worked for the OSCE Mission in Albania, before heading up the India team in the South Asian Department of the FCO. In 2000, I was posted as First Secretary to the British Embassy Warsaw, with a particular focus on European Union issues in the run-up to Poland’s accession to the EU. In 2003, I returned to the UK as Deputy Head of the Environment Policy Department. From 2004-2005, I led the FCO’s Knowledge Management Programme. During this period, I led two deployments of the FCO’s Consular Rapid Deployment Team– to Sri Lanka, after the tsunami in 2004 and to Pakistan, after the earthquake in 2005. From 2006-2007, I served as Deputy Consul-General, Basra, Iraq. From June 2007 I worked with the FCO’s Change Unit.

I took up my current appointment on 22 January 2008. My wife Joanne and I are the proud parents of Olivia. Outside of the office, I cycle around Manhattan, play soccer (football) and, when parenting duties allow, enjoy the cultural riches offered by New York. I try hard to understand baseball.