UN New Yorker: The UNGA Edition

The centerpiece of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) calendar is the session running from September through December in New York.  The UNGA offers a key opportunity for both States and civil society to profile and advocate for their priorities on the international stage.

OutRight utilizes the UNGA as a platform to surface discrimination and violence faced by LGBTI people. We work throughout the year to build relationships with UN representatives, UN agencies and UN Missions and then leverage these for the use of LGBTI communities worldwide.

In December, OutRight will convene a group of over 50 LGBTI human rights defenders and activists in New York for our annual Week of Advocacy to meet with high-level actors within the UN system to advocate for their priorities.

We are particularly delighted to share some of the exciting partnership work we have been involved in over the past two months, including our annual event at UNGA high level meeting with the UN LGBTI Core Group, our work with allied civil society organizations based here in New York, and the release of a joint report on last year’s session of UNGA.

The debates in the 72nd session of the UNGA can shape much of the work within UN human rights mechanisms and world over the next year, so in this edition we look at how it operates, civil society access, and why it plays such a significant role in international law.

The UNGA Edition

What is the General Assembly?

Established in 1945 the UNGA is the primary deliberative policy-making and representative organ of the United Nations. The UNGA considers and makes recommendations on any issue that falls under the scope of the UN Charter. These includes human rights, peace and security, political cooperation, and international collaboration.

The UNGA elects the members of its subsidiary bodies and principal organs including the Human Rights Council, it appoints the UN Secretary General upon recommendation from the Security Council, considers reports from other organs and experts from within the UN, assesses the financial status of UN Member States, and approves the UN budget.

The UNGA allocates most of its work to its six main committees which take up different issues and present draft resolutions and decisions to the plenary of the UNGA.

While the UNGA remains in session for the entire year, its main session is held in New York from early September through mid-December, beginning with a two-week general debate attended by heads of states and Senior Ministers. Each year, the UNGA addresses over 150 agenda items, considered either in a plenary session or in one of its six committees. The formal decisions made during these sessions are known as UN resolutions.

Why is it Important?

The UNGA is the only principle organ of the UN with universal member state membership and its membership currently stands at 193 countries, often referred to as ‘Member States.’ Symbolically and substantively, the UNGA exists as one of the most notable political forums for achieving international consensus on core human rights issues. Many decisions by subsidiary bodies such as the Human Rights Council require confirmation at the UNGA sessions, which means that successful civil society advocacy in Geneva must be supported by strong civil society advocacy in New York.

Governments are not legally compelled to act on UNGA decisions, but as with other parts of the UN system such as the Universal Periodic Review process, recommendations carry the weight of international opinion. UNGA decisions can have significant influence on the UN’s work throughout the year. They set goals and priorities for various development activities, mandate world conferences on major issues, and admit new UN Member States.

What are We Focusing on?

The majority of OutRight's substantive advocacy work over the UNGA session focusses on the processes in the Third Committee where most of the human rights issues are addressed. This year OutRight will be monitoring several key human rights resolutions in the Third Committee:

  • The Situation of Human Rights Defenders Resolution (led by Norway)
  • The Role of National Human Rights Institutions (led by Germany)
  • The Rights of the Child Resolution (Co led by the European Union and The Latin American and Caribbean Group)
  • The improvement of the Situation of Women and Girls in Rural Areas Resolution (led by Mongolia)
  • The Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Resolution (led by Denmark)

We will also be engaging with the Third Committee General Discussion on Human Rights, the Interactive Dialogue with the Human Rights Council President, the Interactive Dialogue with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and of course the Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

Last year OutRight defended the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity against budget attacks in the Fifth Committee. This year OutRight will again monitor issues relating to the budget of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity as well as the Office of the High Commissioner, and the Treaty Body Monitoring Bodies in the Fifth Committee.

For a full list of available dates related to these focus areas please refer to events calendar section.


UNGA High Level Event

Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta, speaks as part of the LGBTI Core Group High Level Event in the United Nations Trusteeship Council. (Photo: OutRight)

On September 20th, the UN LGBTI Core Group (of which OutRight is a co-founding and active member) held the 5th annual LGBTI Human Rights event at UNGA leaders’ week in UN Headquarters. The event focused on the theme, “Ending violence and discrimination against LGBTI people,” and included keynote speeches from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Heads of State, senior ministers, and special representatives from 12 countries. The evening was attended by a record number of states, UN Agency and Secretariat representatives and civil society.

Heads of States, Ministers, Vice Ministers, Special Representatives, Permanent Representatives, high-level representatives including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Jessica Stern, of OutRight Action International, pose for a group photo before the UN LGBTI Core Group High Level Event in the UN Trusteeship Council. (Photo: OutRight)

Jessica Stern, OutRight Action International, moderates the UN LGBTI Core Group High Level Event in the UN Trusteeship Council. (Photo: OutRight)

Jessica Stern, OutRights Executive Director moderated the event and reflected:

Next year, the UN LGBTI Core Group will celebrate its 10-year anniversary. 2008 doesn’t seem so long ago, but less than ten years ago, a high-level event specifically addressing the human rights of LGBTI people had never been held at the United Nations. Now, we’re in a different era.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed more progress on the human rights of LGBTI people at the UN than in all of the prior years of the UN combined. Thanks to the sustained efforts of civil society, key UN Members States, and allies across the UN system - the words ‘sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics’ are actually spoken in multilateral negotiations, written into resolutions, named in the Universal Periodic Review process and treaty body engagement - and now constitute sections of work done by UN agencies,” continuing, “We are queer. We’re here. And that matters!”

General Assembly Preparation

From Left to right: Ryan Thoreson (Human Rights Watch), Sahar Moazami (OutRight), Renni Edwin (OutRight), Selamawit Tesfaye (Plan International), Eleanor Openshaw (ISHR); Juliana Carreiro Avila (IWHC), Rachel Jacobson (IWHC), David Nichols (Amnesty International). (Photo: OutRight)

On Friday, September 1st and Monday September 25th, OutRight convened meetings with representatives from civil society organizations to plan for the UNGA. The goals of the meetings were to create a space for like-minded organizations to collectively organize for advocacy at the UNGA, and facilitate channels of communication for future projects. The group discussed collaborative ways to promote civil society participation, build each other’s capacity, expand relationships, and advance normative progress on human rights at the UNGA.

Human Rights Council Elections: Interactive State Dialogue

UN Australian Country Delegate speaks at the ISHR HRC Interactive State Dialogues. (Photo: OutRight)

On Monday, September 11, the International Service for Human Rights and Amnesty International held a “pledging” event for candidate states for the 2018-2010 cycle of the Human Rights Council. Thirteen of the sixteen member States running for membership participated in the discussions. OutRight’s UN Program team attended the event to monitor and advance LGBTI inclusion within the discussion.

UN Program Coordinator, Siri May, asked the following question drafted by ILGA during the dialogue:

Thank you Under Secretary General, and thank you to ISHR and Amnesty for hosting this event today. My name is Siri May and I represent the organization OutRight Action International, we work to protect and promote the human rights of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people around the world. Questions related to LGBTI persons are unfortunately highly politicized at the Human Rights Council. What would your government do as a Member to ensure that this politics does not get in the way of promoting and protecting the human rights of those who have diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expression or sex characteristics? We would also like to acknowledge Peru and Australia for proactively raising LGBTI human rights in their interventions today.

Australia, Ukraine, Mexico, Chile and Peru spoke about the importance of upholding the principle of nondiscrimination and of addressing violence against LGBTI individuals.



Civil Society's Space at the United Nations is Shrinking

Rashima Kwatra, Communications Officer, OutRight Action International

Like all NGOs, OutRight’s interventions at the General Assembly depend on civil society access to the UN. This entails physical access into United Nations (UN) buildings to engage with the various human rights mechanisms of the UN, including the UN Economic and Social Council, and even to special debates organized by the President of the General Assembly. OutRight utilizes its UN ECOSOC status every day to advocate for the protection and promotion of the human rights of LGBTI people within the UN system.

Over the past 12 months, access to UN headquarters for NGOs such as OutRight has come under attack. From the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March to UNGA High-Level Week last week, restrictions on physical access to UN headquarters and limits on meaningful participation in decision-making processes are hindering meaningful civil society engagement. For example, during the CSW, human rights defenders were, for the first time, forced to leave the UN building at six o’clock in the evening while important negotiation processes were still taking place. "Security" was the excuse used.

Shrinking civil society space at the UN is symptomatic of increasing threats to civic participation in democratic spaces across the world. Restrictions on the registration of civil society organizations, limits on access to funding for human rights organizations, and the intimidation and even arrests of human rights defenders are all strategies used by governments today.1

At the UN, multiple reports to the Human Rights Council describe intimidation, harassment, and arrests of civil society activists across the globe.2 According to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), “[S]pace for civil society is not optional. International human rights law places an obligation on States to respect rights and freedoms that are indispensable for civil society to develop and operate...Vibrant civil society participation in the United Nations human rights system is indispensable to the effective protection and promotion of human rights.’3

Without a free and vibrant civil society, there is no democracy, human rights, security or national development. Civil society is an indispensable requirement of the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals which “Encourages and promotes effective public, te and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships” (SDG 17.17).4,5

While high-level leaders of the UN offer rhetorical support for civil society participation, access to the UN has become more restricted for than ever for OutRight and our allies.6 Thankfully, NGOs are organizing and galvanizing political leadership. Newly appointed UNGA President, Miroslav Lajcak, offered some hope of support on civil society inclusion, using his maiden speech and his Twitter account to announce that, “@UN was created for people - esp. Those not sitting in this call today. It’s the task of the #UNGA to make sure their voices are heard.”

OutRight has recently called for reform to the system to ensure that civil society can meaningfully engage with UN processes and that human rights defenders working at the international level be protected from reprisals. The message of OutRight’s platform for reform is clear: The UN must uphold the rights of all people and protect spaces for civil society participation in order to advance fundamental human rights and development.


1 Tiersky, Alex, and Emily Renard. Closing Space: Restrictions on Civil Society Around the World and U.S. Responses. Congressional Research Service, 6 Apr. 2016, fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44458.pdf.
2 Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights. Human Rights Council. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 17 August 2015, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/182/81/PDF/G1518281.pd...
3 Practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society, based on good practices and lessons learned. Human Rights Council. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 11 Apr. 2016, documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/073/52/PDF/G1607352.pdf?OpenElement.
4 “SDGs: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.” United Nations, United Nations, sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics/sustainabledevelopmentgoals.
5 Ibid 3
6 “Requesting a United Nations Grounds Pass in New York for NGOs in Consultative Status with ECOSOC.” Welcome to csonet.Org, csonet.org/?menu=86.


Rashima Kwatra has experience working on international issues as they relate to the human rights of marginalized communities, with a specialization in sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics (SOGISC). Her engagement on SOGISC issues has encapsulated communications, policy, advocacy, and strategic philanthropy to further the global lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) human rights agenda. Prior to joining OutRight Rashima worked on the SOGISC program teams at Human Rights Watch, Wellspring Advisors, LLC., and for the United Nations Development Programme’s ‘Being LGBTI in Asia’ initiative. She holds a Masters of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs as well as a Bachelors of Arts from the George Washington University. She is from Bangkok, Thailand.


activist spotlight

In Conversation with Jennifer Lu 

Jennifer Lu. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lu)

In the lead-up to OutRight Advocacy Week at UNGA this December, we took time to chat with Jennifer Lu from TongZhi (LGBTQ) Hotline Association in Taiwan, a participant in our 2014 Advocacy Week, during her recent visit to New York.

Jennifer, you were an early participant in OutRight’s annual Week of Advocacy at UNGA. Tell us a little bit about your experience.

I came to New York for Advocacy Week and to attend the UN Core Group Human Rights Day event in 2014. I would say the experience of attending Advocacy Week impacted me a lot because it gave me a chance to understand the UN system and how LGBT rights were treated in the international arena. Because of Taiwan’s special international status, there was not much opportunity for me to engage with the UN system before. Participating in Week of Advocacy, going to meetings with UN missions and working with regional activists from all around the world helped me to understand the LGBT issues from other countries and what the situation was there. I could then link local issues to issues from other countries and have a better understanding of the global, bigger, picture of LGBT issues.

I also really understood the impact of policy and the need to lobby to make change. I remember I went to the South Korean Mission, the Philippines, and New Zealand, and other missions from the Asia-Pacific region, and this lobbying experience made me understand how to participate in political work in Taiwan. I saw through this kind of lobbying that we could change the mindset of Ambassadors, so they could understand more about gender and sexual minorities and understand that LGBT rights are human rights. I think that was a big understanding for me – that LGBT rights are human rights, I used this framing to push LGBT issues in Taiwan when I returned, and it really resonated with the community, especially with the younger generation.

Can you tell me more about how engaging with the UN system impacted the work you did in Taiwan?

In the past, we focused mainly on community engagement and education and less on public policy engagement and advocacy. Going to Advocacy Week changed the way that I worked and part of the focus of my organization. I honestly found political engagement quite boring, but after engaging with the UN system, with diplomats, and with fellow activists during the week, I realized how important it was. I recognized that if we can change policy, we can make entire communities better off, and we could impact larger numbers of people than if we only focused on social education and community services. I also came back to realize that I was one of the few with this kind of experience, so I started getting requests to speak, even with the government, to talk about UN issues and LGBT issues. I wrote articles, spoke at events, and gave talks just to raise the visibility of LGBT right issues. I was able to build really good relationships with other stakeholders and with Taiwan’s International Affairs department as well.

My commitment to working on policy issues also eventually led to me running for office in 2015. I wanted people to also see an openly LGBT person in politics. I think this helped to raise the visibility of LGBT issues, even though I did not win the position.

Taiwan is a leader on LGBT rights in Asia, and your organization has done so much to impact this. Can you talk about a campaign that you ran to progress LGBT rights in Taiwan?

I was inspired to run a campaign based on the event held by the UN LGBT Core Group at the UN on International Human Rights Day. It was an event which talked about family and love, and LGBT rights as human rights. So last year, when we wanted to focus on the marriage equality campaign in Taiwan, we used the same concept that was hosted in the UN – we hosted a huge rally on human rights day, and linked LGBT rights to human rights in Taiwan. There were over 250,000 people who came to demonstrate around the Presidential office, calling for our rights, and for marriage equality. I think that was the first time in Taiwan that there was such an event on Human Rights Day. I am proud to have been the main coordinator of the event.

What is really important is that we spread the idea that human rights are LGBT rights and we need to respect all human rights in Taiwan as well. This is an understanding that I have noticed more and more in the younger generation in Taiwan, and this is the hope I have that things will change.

Jennifer Lu is a social worker, activist, writer and political participant. She has been devoted to LGBT rights and the political reform movement for 13 years. In January 2016, Jennifer represented the Social Democratic Party, and ran for a parliamentary seat in the general elections. During her election campaign, she and her team successfully raised issues of LGBT visibility. They also pushed to include the political participation of younger generations, and equal rights onto the agenda of the Taiwanese parliament.


Since 2003, there have been seven General Assembly resolutions that address discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and three SOGI specific Human Rights Council Resolutions.

A 2010 event organized by the UN LGBTI Core Group provided the setting for former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to give the first keynote speech ever delivered by a UN Secretary-General on LGBTI equality.


First day of the meeting of the Third Committee
Equal Rights Coalition Meeting Hosted by Chile and Canada
The Independent Expert on SOGI Professor Viti Mantarbhorn presents his General Assembly Report in an interactive dialogue with the Third Committee.
A full list of the Special Procedures reporting dates can be found here.
Report of the Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Third Committee Dialogue Discussion on Human Rights
Third Cmmittee Dialogue with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights
Third Committee Interactive Dialogue with the Human Rights Council President
OutRight Week of Advocacy, December 2-9

Send questions and comments to:
Rashima Kwatra, rkwatra@outrightinternational.org, +1 (917) 859-7555