Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the UN: The mandate that needs to stay

In early July, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) will vote on renewing the mandate of the United Nations Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). Members should vote in favor of renewal of this mandate, which plays a critical role in documenting human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity and working with governments to advance the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.

The Independent Expert’s mandate was created in 2016 to fill a glaring gap in global human rights reporting and advocacy. All major human rights treaties contain provisions that are applicable to the rights of LGBTQ people. But before 2016, no high-level UN official focused specifically on issues of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity–despite consistent reports from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, civil society organizations and others of grave human rights violations. These human rights violations ranged from targeted killings, rape, assault, torture, arbitrary detention, forced anal examinations, discrimination, lack of legal recognition, and abusive conversion practices aimed at changing people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. More than 800 organizations from over 150 states and territories successfully petitioned the HRC to establish a special procedure focused on combating these violations.

For the last six years, the Independent Expert has utilized various mechanisms, such as fact-finding visits and expert meetings with inputs from member states and civil society, to explore ways to better protect persons suffering from SOGI-based violence and discrimination. This symbiotic relationship between a UN mandate, states, and civil society allows for a virtuous intersection in which new spaces and perspectives are accessed on all sides. 

As the vote for the mandate’s renewal approaches, this mandate remains critical in supporting effective state measures to address SOGI-based violence and discrimination.

The current mandate-holder, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, has brought to light pressing issues such as harmful conversion practices, urging member states to take action against these practices and providing a roadmap for curtailing them. Madrigal-Borloz’s report both drew from and provided additional fuel to OutRight’s own work documenting and advocating for the eradication of conversion practices. Our partner organizations in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa have relied on the Independent Expert’s authoritative report to help clarify the harms of conversion practices in their engagement with religious leaders, government officials, and the general public.

The Independent Expert has also brought attention to the ways in which gender-based violence and discrimination are exacerbated in situations of violence and conflict, an issue of urgent concern given the human rights violations impacting LGBTQ people in Afghanistan and Ukraine, which OutRight has documented. 

The Independent Expert has also assumed a critical role in bringing attention to the issue of shrinking space for civil society. As OutRight has documented, new laws, stemming from authorities’ anti-LGBTQ biases or cynical political efforts to frame LGBTQ people as scapegoats, have made it increasingly difficult for community-based organizations to operate by restricting legal registration, freedom of expression and access to funding. The mandate’s efforts to expand civil society space for LGBTQ organizations are essential in addressing entrenched restrictions on LGBTQ civil society. 

Given the scale of gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people, sustained UN action remains essential. A world without SOGI-based violence and discrimination is possible. The mandate of the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity will get us there faster, saving lives along the way.