Telephonic Media Briefing With Special Envoy for Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry
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OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the briefing of the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons with Special Envoy Berry. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later we will conduct a question and answer session. Instructions will be given at that time. Should you require assistance during the call, please press * then 0. As a reminder, this conference is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Cynthia Gire, U.S. Department of State, Office of International Media Engagement. Please go ahead.
MODERATOR: Thank you and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia Pacific Region. Today we are joined by US Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry who will brief us on his current trip to Asia. This is a very important discussion and I appreciate all of you taking your time out of today to participate in the briefing.
Special Envoy Berry will be speaking to us today from Bangkok, Thailand. He will begin with opening remarks. We will then open it up to your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to Mr. Berry.
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Okay, thank you, Cindy for that introduction and let me say thank you to all of the journalists who have taken the time to join us today for a discussion of this trip and of our general work on the human rights of LGBTI persons in a global sense.
I thought I might start out first of all by putting the current trip in a bit of context. My role as Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, in that role I carry a global responsibility and it’s really couched very much in the framework of our overall human rights approach, our human rights portfolio for the Department of State. In this capacity I have a primary focus on two key issues of concern and those are issues of violence and discrimination primarily as they exist around the world.
Of course we know issues of violence and discrimination to be a factor for members of this community in every single country on earth, including in my own. So we are approaching in a manner which emphasizes respect, transparency and an honest conversation about some of the challenges that remain. Because I believe we have faced many of these challenges and continue to face them in the U.S. and we’re very interested in looking at partnerships and looking at best practices for how we can engage on a global scale.
In the performance of my duties as Special Envoy since I came on seat in this role in April of 2015, I have now traveled to 39 countries around the world. Bangkok, when I arrived here, Thailand is the 39th country. To have a very basic conversation and it really is a very essential one that boils down ultimately to an issue of equality and dignity under the law, really wherever we find these principles under discussion.
When I travel, I engage with several key constituencies within each country. That includes meetings with senior government representatives, meetings with business leaders, meetings with leaders of religious communities and very importantly, meetings with those who work on these issues in civil society because I think that’s the single-most important element for promoting change is the work of civil society groups. And lastly and I think directly relevant to those of you on the call today, interact with representatives of the media because I believe the media, where it is dedicated to providing open, clear and informative reporting can be very, very helpful in leading the effort to make sure people are aware of the core issue.
And that core issue is an essential issue of human dignity and equality. So my current trip here in Asia is my first in this capacity to this part of the world. I am midway through a six-country swing. I began my travels in Taiwan then traveled to Hanoi where I had a couple of days of good meetings. I’m here in Thailand finishing up a range of meetings and will subsequently be traveling in Indonesia, in South Korea and in Japan before returning back to Washington.
But the framework of the discussion wherever we engage is very much within the context of what I just explained. So I’m very excited to have a chance to learn a bit more about what I think is a really interesting and dynamic set of issues, obviously under some change here in Asia so it’s a great opportunity for me to learn a bit more. In closing, I might just say that wherever I’ve gone, I have come away more hopeful of progress on these issues and that’s because of some very good leadership that’s being exhibited in a number of places around the world. And Asia is no exception here. But I think there is a global conversation about what it means to be truly equal in the eyes of the law. I think it is not limited to members of this community but members of this community are absolutely included I think, in that general progress.
So let me stop there and turn it back to you, Cindy, and see if we have some questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you. You need to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. We will now begin the question and answer portion. For those asking questions, please state your name, affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic. With that, I’ll just remind you again to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. That’s *1 to join the question queue. All right, we’ll start out with Sao Phal Niesley from Cambodia will ask the first question if we can please open the mic.
REPORTER: Hello? Hello?
OPERATOR: Your line is open, go ahead.
REPORTER: Okay, I have a question for you today, sir, that is on what -- actually Cambodia, as you can see also, has a rising (unintelligible) and I want to know from you, based on legal and traditional perspective, how is this situation of LGBT in Cambodia and what United States have done and will continue to do in order to support those who are working to support and advocate for the rights of LGBT in Cambodia. Thank you.
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Mm-hmm, okay, thank you for that question and I’m happy to have a question from Cambodia. I’m going to answer in a slightly more general way because what I can say is that as a picture of all of our work, all of our policy is to focus on the health and wellbeing of civil society organizations, wherever they are. Ultimately we operate on a principle of do no harm to make sure that we are engaging and ultimately being very constructive in our assistance to civil society structure.
Now specifically, I’m unable to answer Cambodia specific questions since I haven’t had a chance to travel there yet and take a look at the situation myself. But I can tell you that the commitment from our mission in Phnom Penh and both in terms of our embassy presence and our USAID regional programming that also captures support on this issue is very, very important to us and you know we have had, I think some real success in making sure that we are engaging on LGBTI issues in a very consistent way.
So I’m afraid I can’t really speak specifically to Cambodia but I would look forward to the opportunity to come there in the future and see for myself.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our second question comes from Shannon Power in Australia.
REPORTER: Hi, Special Envoy Berry, thank you for answering our questions. I’m s Senior Journalist from Australia’s Star Observer, one of Australia’s key LGBTI publications. My question to you is as Australia is one of the main and key allies in the Asia Pacific Region; do you think Australia could lead the way in improving the lives of LGBTI people in the region by legalizing same-sex marriage in our own country?
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Mm-hmm, thanks for the question. You know I think Australia is already providing a significant degree of leadership in the regional context. We cooperate and collaborate with your government in a number of ways in international fora, whether that’s in terms of policy support for discussion on this within the UN system or in regional organizations. But we’re also beginning to see a greater degree of program collaboration which I think really is going to be enhanced.
As it goes to the issue of same-sex marriage, I know that’s currently an issue of hot debate in Australia. You know, generally speaking in terms of our policy priority, we don’t really focus on issues of marriage equality. You know that’s a fairly recent innovation in the United States and while we believe it goes to the very heart of progress towards equality, we think in most contexts, we’re not working on that issue in an active way simply because the conversation we have to have on violence and discrimination in most parts of the world is a much more fundamentally pressing issue.
Of course, you know, when a country takes that step and grants greater equality to its citizens in any form, we welcome that, clearly. It’s just not one of the driving portions of our agenda. Now, we obviously have just gone through this significant change in the U.S. I am married in the United States and I’m raising children so I think this commitment is a very positive thing in terms of equality and welcome it but ultimately, the discussion that takes place in Australia is an Australian issue, you know, for the legislature or for the people to decide ultimately. But you know there, I think, if you have any kind of deeper conversation about what it means to be truly equal under the eyes of the law, we have a pretty firm commitment on this issue in our own country and encourage that conversation to take place.
I think that that’s a very important aspect of any democracy is for people to have the chance to talk the pros and cons and to freely state their beliefs and then take what steps might be possible.
REPORTER: Fantastic, thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Ken with AP in Japan. And just a reminder to press *1 on your phone if you’d like to ask a question. And can we please open AP’s mic?
REPORTER: Hi, I wanted to follow up with the same-sex marriage question as well. I know you said the focus is on other issues. What I’m wondering is given the progress with same-sex marriage in the United States, do you have any sense as to what extent that’s having a sort of positive effect in developing momentum in general for LGBT rights in this region?
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Thank you for the question. Yes, I think it has. I think it’s had an impact. I think that all of the progress that we’re seeing globally in some ways has an impact of one sort or another, you know? We live, I think, in an age where you know, where we’re very lucky to be living in an age where you know I think we have instant access to information. We have the ability to take a look at developments halfway across the world and examine them and see if there’s applicability where we’re working.
You know, I think that there is a very positive contagion here of progress. And I think that’s happening here in Asia just as it’s happening in many other places of the world. Now, is U.S. the driver of that through our own progress on equality issues? I think it’s maybe a contributing factor but in fact I think the real story here is that there is a global movement underway and it’s not there because of U.S, leadership. It never has been. But I think we in the United States, are part of a global progress, a global movement in terms of understanding the essential character of equality here.
And you know I think some of the greatest examples of leadership in progress and really embracing way, in fact have come from South America, for example with great innovations that we’ve seen in Chile and Argentina and Uruguay and Brazil and Colombia. You know, changes that we see that are taking place across parts of Europe. I think that the trends that I’m sensing already just in a couple of stops here in Asia is that, you know, that’s very much enhancing the conversation here. And I really do believe we’re working on an issue of global importance that is being nudged along by a very open and honest conversation. You know, I think that’s the possible thing.
In some of the more challenging environments globally where we engage I often hear that this is the traditional society that we can’t engage in the taboo issues to discuss and I really don’t find that’s the case. And you know this trip for me has been an eye-opener as well to travel in Taiwan, to travel in Vietnam where these are also heavily traditional societies who are engaged in a national debate and I think this has to be home-grown ultimately. I think there can be influence, I think there can be best practices that are accepted from other places but I think ultimately it has to be a national dialog that carries debate about what does equality mean, what does tradition mean, what does essential fairness and integrity of our constitution protections mean.
You know most constitutions around the world include an explicit protection for equality of all of its citizens. I think we’ve found in the U.S. it’s taken us a long time to realize what that means. Unless we take the steps that are necessary to make that real, you know, those equality clauses are just aspirational and they’re not real. But I think what we do with that is really important. So sorry I meandered away from your original question but I hope that’s okay.
REPORTER: All right, thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Momoko Kadera, also from Japan. Please open the mic.
REPORTER: Hello? Hello?
REPORTER: You can hear me okay. My name is Momoko Kadera, Japan’s newspaper Nikkei, since we are economic newspaper, I would like to ask you whether you would say respecting sexual minorities’ rights can have economic impact, a positive one and what do you think private sectors can do to enhance rights of sexual minorities?
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Mm-hm, I could give you a one-word answer on that but I’ll go beyond that. Absolutely I believe that’s the case. I think the private sector has an extraordinary role to play in a number of places around the world and I think this is one of the great evolving stories of our time and our engagement on this particular issue. You know, our strength in the U.S. has very much been that businesses operating completely from a perspective of not just fairness but integrity of their brands, profitability and productivity realized long before government did, that being embracing of diversity enhances your integrity, that it makes your business stronger.
It increases your ability to follow your business model. You know I think governments have been a little bit slower to catch up to that. So I’m really interested in looking at that model because I believe that discussion is certainly taking place in a number of places around the world. And I see both multinational businesses and national business interests now taking a look at this very issue; not from a perspective of human rights, not from a perspective of just doing what’s right, even though it is the right thing to do but really because it goes to that very core of the business model.
I’ve had the pleasure of looking at what a few multinationals are doing in the States. A couple that I would mention specifically for some really good leadership on this are Citibank and IBM who are not only engaging in really robust conversations internally with their staff to make sure their diversity policy is real and is talked about at every level but also beginning to engage in that conversation in a global sense and with their political leaders and economic leaders who are seeking to grow their country economically because this has a ramification and an aspect that is that it’s truly economic.
I’m aware in fact that very soon in the early part of March, there’s going to be a very robust discussion taking place to focus specifically on this issue. The Economist magazine is spearheading the work of an event called Pride and Prejudice which is going to be convening in three major world cities, including Hong Kong, London and New York so that senior leaders have a chance to talk about this very issue. But I believe that is the aspect of this conversation. It really is (unintelligible). I believe so firmly that this is an integral part of moving forward, the economic and business case.
REPORTER: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the Thanh Nien Media Group in Vietnam. Can we please open her mic?
OPERATOR: Your line is open, go ahead.
REPORTER: Yes, I have a question. You mentioned that you have visited Hanoi so I wonder if you could comment and elaboration on the situation of the LGBTI rights situation in Vietnam right now.
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Thank you for the question. I am very excited about what’s happening in Vietnam right now. What I saw there was a very clear story throughout all of my meetings with government officials with representatives of civil society and also representatives of media that I interacted with there. And that is that there is a very open, honest conversation that’s being undertaken. That requires the main stakeholders to engage freely and to just have a very open exchange of views. I think that goes to the very heart of how a democracy works.
When you have a press that is free and open and reports in an objective, factual way on issues relating to members of the community, when you have a government that is engaging civil society and is making a commitment to improving the lives and equality of its citizens and when you have a civil society that is engaging in a constructive and helpful way, you know, with that trusted partner across the fence in government, that’s a perfect recipe for me for great progress.
So you know, I think Vietnam has taken some really important steps over the last couple of years. I believe work still needs to be done but I would say that of any country. I think we can never think that we have done enough to ensure the equality of our citizens. That’s a constant work. But I believe that Vietnam in fact has the potential of being a real regional leader in terms of progress on these issues.
REPORTER: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Matthew McDonald from Joy 94.9 in Australia.
REPORTER: Thank you, Special Envoy, Matt McDonald from Joy 94.5 Australia’s gay and lesbian radio station. There are over 70 countries that currently criminalize same-sex relations. There seems to be a bit of a push to focus more on progress towards antidiscrimination laws rather than focus on decriminalization. Do you think that is a more palatable approach for conservative countries?
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: You know, I think regardless how you prioritize one over the other I think both are essential components, you know, because I guess which portion of that comes first? I believe if we’re talking about discrimination and there is a real commitment or a conversation about how to end that, that’s completely inconsistent with a statute criminalizing consensual adult same-sex relationships. So I think those two are inextricably linked.
I am deeply concerned, in fact right at the core of our policy is an engagement on these countries that, you know that figure is well north of 70 in fact. But I think there’s a key part of this conversation to engage with the government, you know whether that’s through a process of broader legal forum or discussion that’s specific to these issues, to take a look, you know, because the fact of the matter is, is that half of those countries that have criminalization statutes inherited them from the British Colonial Code. You know, about whether or not that makes sense to retain this kind of discriminatory legislation in 2016.
So I think that conversation is being joined in a number of countries within the commonwealth but I think it’s part and parcel of that same discussion about discrimination. You know each country I think has taken a different route towards this discussion on equality and about perceiving it at varying rates. For example, I can reflect in the U.S., even though we have marriage equality, one thing that is still acting is comprehensive federal nondiscrimination on this basis. So clearly we still have some work to do at home as well.
But I think these are all linked. I think I’m very, very interested in seeing how things progress in a constructive way. In other words, I think we have to take gains where we can get them in any place because I think you can take that, have a new platform, a new level from which to work and then continue our work. But I think it’s really necessary for us to engage on both of those key issues.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for two more questions. Our next question is from Rappler in Indonesia. Can we please open her mic?
REPORTER: Okay, hello? Yes.
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Hello?
REPORTER: Hello, I’m (unintelligible) from Rappler Indonesia. Okay so I’m from Indonesia, you know that the Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world. And we have a different condition with another country and our latest condition of LGBT community activity has been banned on campus, our university and (unintelligible) it’s stated by our ministry and also the issue has been raising out in the media, one of our national media declare to avenge LGBT and they say that it’s a threat for the nation’s security so instead of dreaming like U.S. is that we have -- that someday we can legalize same-sex marriage, no we have to struggling with the majority of Muslim community here. Okay so my question is there anything that we can learn from USA to be applied in Indonesia or is there any possibility that someday that in the future that Indonesia can be open-minded like U.S. is? Or is there anything that we can learn from the U.S.? Thank you.
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Thanks for the question. I haven’t traveled in Indonesia yet so I’m going to be a bit -- I need to really get there and have a sense, an opportunity to have a few meetings and to develop a broader sense of the situation there. But if I can answer in slightly broader terms, I think there are a couple of key issues that we’re talking processes and national discussions that are underway.
I don’t think in any country that simply allowing a person to live freely and be the person that they have to be is in any way, a threat to anyone else. In fact, I think that enhances a country’s ability to empower all of its citizens. I say that in a global sense. Now, you know, I think that is a fundamental reality and that’s not just an American perspective. I think that’s a global reality.
I think that, you know, are there lessons from the American experience that can be helpful? You know maybe there are a few but I think that the essential thing to keep in mind here is that in each place, you know where this discussion is developing, it has to take into account all of the local views, local context to simply engage in an honest conversation. I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to listen to an experience from one country and plant it in another simply because you know all of the elements that make up a society are not there.
So I think it’s possible to take some lessons, to look at some things that have developed. I think, though, really you know in a place where we need to have a conversation at a very fundamental level is really just about what equality means. And again I think you know if I’m going to draw this back to the US experience. That’s an aspirational phrase. And I think we all are strengthened by continuing to redouble our efforts to make greater equality for citizens real. You know in my country at the very founding of our country there’s a phrase in our founding documents that states that we believe that all men are created equal except of course in the late 1700s when those words were written, they didn’t really mean that as we understand it today.
You know that the challenge and the promise I think of my country is that we have gone back and taken a look at what does equality mean at several points in our history, you know, whether you look back to the women’s rights, women’s equality movement in Seneca Falls, you know, whether you look at Selma, Alabama and the March Towards Civil Rights and what does it mean to be equal on the basis of ethnicity or race or if you go back to the Stonewall Riots which were the beginning of the LGBTI movement in the United States.
Those are not unrelated issues by any means. These are all fundamental inborn parts of the human reality that makes up the great diversity that we share as the human race. Issues of equality or discrimination where that exists on any of those bases are part of the same equation. So I mean we’re not breaking out this community for any sort of special consideration. We’re working on this just to promote the idea that discrimination against members of this community is just as wrong as discrimination based on ethnicity or race. I really think that that’s a fundamental linkage.
But you know I look forward to engaging. I think there is some good work that’s being done in Indonesia with civil society. I’m looking forward to engaging there and learning a bit more.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our final question is from The Guardian in Australia.
REPORTER: Hello, can you hear me?
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: Yes.
REPORTER: Hi, sorry, I’m actually in Bangkok. I was forwarded the invite by my editor who’s in Australia. My name is Oliver Holmes and I’m the Southeast Asia correspondent. And I was wondering if during your travels in Asia, you’ve observed any societal trends or even concrete laws that benefit the LGBT community that you think could be encouraged or implemented in the U.S.?
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: You know that’s a good question. In the places that I’ve traveled so far, I’ve seen some really wonderful examples of progress that are being observed. In terms of specific legislation, I haven’t encountered one yet that I thought had any sort of direct applicability in the US because we’ve been looking at issues related to ending criminalization and some gender identity steps that have already been taken in the U.S.
But from a slightly broader perspective if I might, I think there’s a really interesting story that I see here and that is you know, when we talk about, so often language that I think is resistant to a positive conversation on these issues is often phrased in terms of traditional values, traditional culture, defense of the family or more traditional way of life. And I’ve seen something really interesting on that aspect in both Taiwan and Vietnam that is really meaningful to me. And that is, you know, if you take a look at the broader, more complex issue of societal acceptance, both of these societies are really undergoing a rather interesting transformation.
And they’re doing so in the context of a relatively traditional environment. And as part of that tradition, I think also, you know, the concept of family is fundamentally important. But I think that these countries are showing that it’s completely possible to be true to the integrity of tradition but also understand that our societies, our cultures are never unchanging. But in fact, you know traditions are evolving and I don’t think that preserving tradition and embracing a broader understanding of equality are mutually exclusive concepts.
I mean that’s a discussion that we continue to have, you know, because in the U.S. even though the marriage equality piece is settled, we still have issues of nondiscrimination, legal protections to work on. But I think it’s hard to disassociate that in that broader conversation within society because you know many of those phrases come at us from -- in our own country as well, about people harkening to return or to embrace a traditional definition, whether it means family or marriage or anything like that. And I think, you know, it’s a good example to me for those folks who will say we can’t have this discussion because it’s taboo, we shouldn’t have this discussion because it’s contrary to traditional values, you know I just don’t agree with that point of view. I think it’s completely consistent and we’re completely capable of having that conversation.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy Berry. I would like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today and ask you if you have any final words before we close the call.
SPECIAL ENVOY BERRY: You know just a couple of key thematic issues that are always on the forefront of my mind. One is you know our focus. We haven’t had a great deal of discussion about it today but just a word or two about the issue of violence against members of the community that we know for a fact that levels of violence in almost any country around the world, including the United States are higher against members of the LGBTI community and I say that in a global sense.
I really want to focus on these issues of stigma, the issues of misunderstanding that I think promotes that sanction or that idea that somehow members of the community deserve this kind of treatment because they are somehow different. That is a global challenge and it’s very close to my heart, especially as it pertains to young people. You know some of the most really motivating engagements that I’ve had both on this trip and throughout the rest of my global travel have been with young audiences where I also prioritize some contacts. And that’s because of something that I think has been a disturbing trend in the United States as well and with one of the principle reasons I decided to step into this role.
And that is for young people who are contending with issues of their sexuality when they’re 16, 17, 18, 19 years old and suddenly realizing that they are different and that there’s nothing that you’re going to do to change that, that this is simply a part of the human condition. I think it’s extraordinarily harmful as we saw in the U.S. in our experience there for people to be getting deeply negative messages about who they are, especially from people who I believe should know better. But I mean to get the message that they are somehow sick and in need of healing, that they are evil and in need of some form of repentance, that their Creator does not love them because of this, we see in far, far too many cases, young people turn that external hatred and violence inward on themselves. And it pains me greatly every time I hear of a young person harming themselves, ruining their life simply because society has not progressed enough to accept and to love unconditionally. I think that’s a great tragedy and I think there’s a lot we need to do to end that.
Connected to that, just a quick comment on the role of the media and I thank you again for taking an interest in these roles. I think the media has an absolutely critical role to play in promoting this dialog and that ensuring that when we’re reporting on LGBTI issues that we don’t reduce these issues or members of the LGBTI community to some sort of two-dimensional characterization, a stereotype or some sort of cartoon and to always keep in mind when we’re reporting on these issues, there are human lives attached to the other ends of these stories and these are someone’s children, their brothers and sisters and I think we owe them the respect.
You know I think certainly I’ve seen a great vibrancy in this region and I don’t say that necessarily directed to this region but just as a more general concept that I think where we have seen the media take on that constructive role, it plays a fundamentally important part of that conversation about making people more educated, more exposed to what it means to be a member of this community. Because I think ultimately at the end of the day, our enemy, our opponent on this is in fact not any sort of principled obstruction. I think it is ignorance. I think that the entities that often speak most confidently and stridently about why it is impossible to have a conversation on these issues simply don’t know what they’re talking about. And I think that’s true in honest engagement, not a confrontational one but an honest engagement about what that means is fundamental. Because this is an issue and I’m very clear on this, this is an issue where we are not ever going to change someone’s mind through force. Through shouting loudly we’re not going to convince somebody on the right side of this.
We have to do it through a patient, calm, rational conversation that helps people understand the basic humanity of this issue. So I’ll stop with my speech now and turn it back to you, Cindy.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much and thanks to all of our callers for participating in today’s call. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at ASIAPACMEDIA@state.gov and that concludes today’s call. I’ll turn it back over to the operator. Thank you.
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