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Alice Bah Kuhnke is no longer a government minister, Minister for Culture and Democracy

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Closing statement by Alice Bah Kuhnke Baltic Pride 2016 International Human Rights Conference

Published

Vilnius, 17 June 2016.
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Dear organizers and participants of the conference,

My name is Alice Bah Kuhnke, I am the Minister for Culture and Democracy. I am responsible for LGBTI-equality in the Swedish Government.

This is my first Baltic Pride, so I am honoured by the invitation to deliver this closing speech of the conference. The possibility for discussions on how to advance LGBTI rights is of highest importance in these times, therefore I hope you have had a fruitful conference.

One of the most important missions for me and the Swedish Government is to strive to for an inclusive, diverse society, where everyone can live their lives in freedom, and have their rights promoted and protected.

This vision is as simple as it is complex. You know this better than anyone. What should be the fundaments of a society are so difficult to achieve. It is incredibly frustrating! Don't you agree?

We are at a crossroads in Europe, where we have a choice. We can choose to go in the direction of darker paths, or we can build inclusive and diverse societies. I know what I and the Swedish Government wants, but we are all concerned about how many other countries there are that want to go in the other direction.

Over the last decades we have seen progress in many countries in Europe and in other parts of the world when it comes to equal rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual persons, such as increasing recognition of same sex relationships. We have also, as you know, seen a much needed focus on the equal rights of transgender and intersex-persons, where several countries have adopted progressive laws setting the standard at a new high.

Yet, many challenges remain. One thing is clear - much of the progress made for LGBTI-equality would not have come about if it wasn't for civil society organisations pushing the agenda forward. And brave people taking a stand for human rights. People like you.

In my own country, Sweden, we have made quite a journey during the last decades. Almost thirty years ago, Sweden became the first country to recognise de facto cohabitation relationships of same sex couples. But it would take another seven years before a formalised legal framework was introduced in terms of civil partnership for same sex couples.

And in 2009 The Marriage Act was amended so that it is now gender neutral. We are now reviewing the regulations of parental leave to be better adapted to families in all their forms.

Our law for gender recognition was set up in 1972, at the time a state of the art law – but now not really modern. The enforced sterilization was ended a few years ago after a long struggle from brave individuals and civil society organisations. Recently, the Swedish Government announced that we will open the possibility for people who were forced to get sterilized under the law, will be able to seek compensation from the state – as far as I know we are the first government in the world to make that kind of a decision.

The debates around these changes were at times loud and inflamed so these changes certainly did not come about without opposition. However after they were introduced they were rather quickly accepted.

Today, existing LGBTI rights are not controversial in Sweden. But it has been a struggle. And every time we have changed a law there have been voices saying that the change will affect society in a negative way. Some even seemed to think that the world would come to an end. Yet, here we are. We've proven them wrong time and time again.

Since this conference is arranged within the framework of Baltic Pride, I am very happy to be part of the march tomorrow.

Pride marches are important in a democratic society as they show a society's capacity to stand up for and protect civil rights.

Pride marches create an opportunity for human rights defenders and LGBTI-organisations to put the spotlight on human rights of LGBTI-persons. And it can't be mentioned enough, civil society play a vital role in democratic countries. Civil society organisations are important in giving LGBTI-rights a voice, and they are equally important as drivers for change in our efforts to combat the violations committed everyday based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTI-equality is about human rights. The Swedish government's position is perfectly clear: Human rights are universal and apply to all, regardless of who you are or whom you love.

Everyone must be able to live their lives in freedom irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. It is a matter of human rights.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in too many countries around the world.

States have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons without discrimination. This includes the human rights of LGBTI-persons. It is not a question of opinion or morals – human rights are universal and apply to all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

The development on LGBTI-issues within the EU is not always straight forward. Significant steps have been made, but there is much more that ought to be done.

For us, it is very important to say that the EU is not a cooperation where you can pick and choose. You cannot only be in the union for the economic benefits and skip the promotion of joint values.

This means that all EU countries should take a joint responsibility for people who are fleeing to our continent. And you should safeguard that LGBTI persons can use the freedom of movement like everyone else. This means that we should strive for increased LGBTI equality in all its aspects!

Again, you cannot pick and choose!

Because, respect for human rights and dignity, and the principles of freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, are the common values of the European Union. This is stated in the Treaty of the union and in the EU:s Charter of fundamental rights.

In the EU foreign policy there are guidelines for EU-delegations and Member States, for the promotion and protection of all human rights of LGBTI-persons. This is in order to make our work in this field more operational and systematic. From a Swedish perspective we see that this is not only needed for EU's foreign policy but also internally.

We need to build alliances and work together, governments and civil society organisations.

We also need to work together to highlight the different forms of discrimination – racism and populism is rising in Europe and in other parts of the world. Some leaders even justify racism in the name of LGBTI equality. This can never be accepted and we should never let the advancement of LGBTI rights be hijacked by other agendas.

Let me finish by saying that I would like to congratulate the organizers' that have been able to gather so many committed and knowledgeable persons under this roof. I wish you all the best in your future work. We need you.

A lot has happened, but a lot challenges remain in order to secure human rights for all, and to secure the possibility to be yourself fully, to be the one you know in your heart that you are.

I would like to end with a quote by Tennessee Williams:

"What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it's curved like a road through mountains."

Thank you.