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Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks: Access to registered same-sex partnerships is a question of equality

February 27th 2017

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks recently published a Human Rights Comment on registered same-sex partnerships. "The trend toward legal recognition of same-sex couples is responding to the daily reality and needs of relationships that have gone unrecognised for a very long time. Our societies are made up of a rich diversity of individuals, relationships and families. It’s time we see this as an asset." says Commissioner Muižnieks.

A question about equality

In his recent comment, the Commissioner states that providing access to legal recognition to same-sex couples boils down to a simple concept: equality before the law. Civil marriage, civil unions, or registered partnerships represent benefits, rights and obligations that the state grants to a couple in a stable relationship. There is a growing consensus that a government may not discriminate against same-sex couples and exclude them from the protections attendant to a formally-recognised different-sex union.

Positive development

Muižnieks highlights that the movement towards legal recognition of same-sex couples has developed rapidly in Europe over the past two decades, and that this has been a bottom-up development and not something imposed by regional organisations and courts. States have led the way through the adoption of national legislation by parliamentary or popular votes. However, there has been backlash to the trend too. In December 2015, a same-sex marriage referendum in Slovenia failed. Several European states have reacted by amending their constitutions to specify that marriage is exclusively the union of a man and a woman. Some of the states which have done so, however, such as Croatia and Hungary, provide registered partnerships for same-sex couples.

Same sex couples still face challenges

From his country visits to San Marino, Slovakia and Latvia, the Commissioner has experienced that same-sex couples may lack inheritance rights, even after a lifetime of sharing and acquiring property. Having no legal recognition as next-of-kin means that a person may not be entitled to a survivor’s pension, to a living partner’s health insurance or to continue living in the home of a deceased partner. If someone is hospitalised after a serious accident and not in a position to explain one’s personal relationship, the person’s partner may be denied visitation rights or access to the medical file.

The way forward: Step by step toward equality

The Commissioner encourages States to continue their work towards eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation in the area of family rights. This requires several measures:

  • The 20 member states of the Council of Europe that still do not provide any legal recognition to same-sex couples should enact legislation to create — at the very least— registered partnerships that ensure that privileges, obligations or benefits available to married or registered different-sex partners are equally available to same-sex partners.
  • All states should ensure that legislation exists to provide registered same-sex couples with the same rights and benefits as married or registered different-sex couples, for example in the areas of social security, taxes, employment and pension benefits, freedom of movement, family reunification, parental rights and inheritance.
  • States should promote respect for lesbian, gay and bisexual persons and combat discrimination based on sexual orientation through human rights education and awareness-raising campaigns.

Read the Human Rights Comment from the Commissioner here..

Recent developments and Equinet’s work on LGBTI

In 2015 the European Commission launched their List of Actions to advance LGBTI equality, and in February 2017, the Commission published its first report on the implementation of this List of Actions.

According to the Equinet workplan for 2017, our Policy Formation Working Group is due to produce a fact sheet on the List of Actions, taking into account the experience of the equality bodies at national level. An Equinet Perspective on equality bodies promoting the rights of LGBTI people can be found here.