Helena Dalli on civil rights: Politicians should shape public debate

Minister tells high-level EU conference that politicians should help shape public opinion on matters like civil liberties, rather than allowing themselves to be driven solely by it

Minister Helena Dalli reiterated Malta’s desire to priorities issues related to LGBTIQ rights during its presidency
Minister Helena Dalli reiterated Malta’s desire to priorities issues related to LGBTIQ rights during its presidency

Politicians have an important role in shaping public debate on issues such as LBGTQI rights, rather than allowing themselves to be driven solely by public opinion, civil liberties minister Helena Dalli said today.

Dalli was addressing a high level ministerial conference on LGBTIQ equality mainstreaming, organised under the auspices of the Maltese EU Presidency. The conference is intended to provide European and government policymakers a platform to take stock of the current situation and share experiences on LGBTIQ equality.

Dalli said that Malta can serve as a good example of how, even in countries that do not seem to be ready to undertake radical reforms, changes can nonetheless take place, provided that there is the political will and the active participation of civil society.

She emphasised that it is, in fact, civil society and the people involved on the ground that are “the real movers in society,” adding that it was policy makers’ job to do everything in their power to facilitate and support these initiatives.

The minister reiterated Malta’s desire to prioritise issues related to LGBTIQ rights during its presidency, and to discuss and evaluate the progress made on the actions decided upon by the Dutch presidency.

She pointed to the introduction of civil unions and transgender rights as proof of that which is achievable if countries take the rights of LGBTIQ people seriously.

“169 couples have tied the knot since the law was introduced, and of these, 22 have converted their foreign marriage certificates to a local one. We have had on adoption by a gay couple and I am told there are five more on the way,” Dalli said.

In addition to this, she underscored efforts to ban conversion therapy and said that within the coming weeks, Identity Malta will start rolling out gender-neutral passports and ID cards.

Dalli highlighted the fact that despite progress made, many were still suffering because of bullying, hate crimes on the streets, and abuse online. “Solutions can’t come from Europe alone, we governments must play our part too,” she said.

Director-general at the European Commission, Tina Astola, underscored the importance of discussion with all stakeholders and decision makers to foster a better agenda and way forward.

She said that there were many people across Europe that feel that governments today are only interested in working for minorities.

“This is of course a simplification of reality, but it is a feeling we cannot ignore, we must address it head on,” she said. “Equality is beneficial to all. It is not a zero-sum game.”

Astola expressed satisfaction at the progress made by member states, many of which she said, were now offering some form of legal recognition of same sex couples, as well as slowly introducing the possibility for trans individuals to change their sex with less red tape.

She too stressed the importance of political will on a national level to push forward reforms, adding that the competencies of the commission were limited when dealing with problems faced by people on the ground.

Astola said the commission will be funding national projects that tackle LGBTIQ issues, giving priority to member states with a low level of acceptance of these people’s rights.

Astola also warned that progress achieved should not be stalled or reversed, citing as an example US President Donald Trump’s decision to overturn a directive allowing trans students attending public schools to use bathrooms and lockerrooms that match their gender identity.

Several speakers at the conference praised Malta for its recent track-record on LGBTIQ rights.

Director of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency Michael O’Flaherty spoke of the importance for Europe to strive to become a world leader, as Malta has led the way on a European level, in recent years.

He bemoaned the fact that trans and intersex people are not adequately represented in forums that shape policy and appealed for there to be more legislative tools to allow authorities to prosecute hate crimes.

Ulrike Lunacek, the vice-president of the European Parliament, urged member states to follow in Malta’s footsteps: “Many counties have avoided putting LGBTIQ matters high on their agenda because it is problematic for them on a national level. I too am from a very Catholic country, but we have not managed to achieve such progress.”

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