On 27th October 2017, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations (UN) Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, presented his first report to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. Despite rumoured threats of a mass walk out, a significant number of African States and members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were notably in the room. The interactive dialogue saw significant cross-regional expressions of support for the independent expert and his mandate. 23 statements were made in total and included voices from every UN regional group as well as the European Union.
The visibility and legitimacy of the human rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people within the UN was pronounced as all six of the independent expert’s stated areas of focus were addressed collectively by the statements, with the majority of comments and questions addressing three of these areas: the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations, the adoption of anti-discrimination measures and the need for an early human rights education. Gaps in both global and national recognition of LGBTI human rights were evident in relation to gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. Inclusion of these issues were limited, with just four States acknowledging the unique vulnerability of transgender individuals and only one speaking to intersex rights. On a similar note, South Africa was the only State to draw attention to the intersectionality between sexual orientation and gender identity and broader structural barriers like racism and poverty.
Despite these gaps, discussions did extend beyond the scope of the Independent Expert’s report. The work of LGBTI human rights inter-governmental coalitions was repeatedly brought to the fore, with States from the Asia Pacific, Latin American and Caribbean (GRULAC), and Western European and Others (WEOG) groups all drawing attention to the role of the UN LGBTI Core Group and the Equal Rights Coalition. It is worth noting that it was the LAC States who took charge of representing the LGBTI Core Group, while WEOG States noticeably abstained from identifying as members (Israel being the only exception). It also appears that the recent Human Rights Council resolution addressing the use of the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations influenced the content of multiple statements with several States making explicit mention of the issue, including the United States who chose to clarify their position on the matter. The need for governments to collaborate with civil society and the inclusion of LGBTI concerns in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were two other prominent areas of discussion.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the often de-personalized tone of UN proceedings was interrupted by the emotive and personalized language employed by some delegates, one choosing to openly identify as a gay man and extending a personal show of gratitude to the Independent Expert. While one could label such demonstrations as merely “tactics”, it can also be argued that this dilution of diplomacy speaks to a larger sense of relief and empowerment experienced by members of the LGBTI community as their concerns begin to be recognized and heard within international settings.
We often hear arguments that new laws or ‘special rights’ are required to tackle the violence and discrimination faced by LGBTI people, but such interpretations are not just misguided, they are harmful. Actors in the UN system must identify and fill gaps in the application of existing law, and that, really, is the crux of the mandate’s potential.
The depth of discussion on LGBTI human rights last week at the UN General Assembly is proof of the progress we have made. Despite these gains, the UN General Assembly continues to be a battleground for LGBTI human rights advocates and without consistent defense by civil society, any progress we’ve made within the UN system is likely to be undermined and uprooted. It can be difficult to locate measurable outcomes in political organs such as the UN General Assembly. But LGBTI visibility there matters. The UN General Assembly is the only principle organ of the UN with universal State membership, both symbolically and substantively, and is one of the most effective multilateral spaces for achieving international consensus on an array of core human rights issues. It must be leveraged by civil society to protect gains made on LGBTI human rights elsewhere in the UN system.
The mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity is due to be reviewed for extension by the Human Rights Council in 2019. Considering both the vigilance and force of tactics employed by anti-LGBTI voices within the UN thus far, it would be dangerous to presume that the extension of the mandate is a given. Over the next 2 years, civil society must remain persistent in our defense of the mandate and continue to build support for LGBTI human rights both within and outside the UN.
Published on November 1, 2017 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization