United Nations Independent Expert for SOGI Focuses on So-Called Conversion Therapy

On February 28th, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IE SOGI), convened an expert meeting on sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts, also referred to as “conversion therapy.” The term, “conversion therapy,” though a widely used term, is a misnomer, as it is neither conversion nor therapy, but rather it is a set of diverse practices that constitute clear violations of human rights and dignity.

Reflecting both the attention and priority that human rights activists have been giving to so-called conversion therapy, this meeting sought to gather further input for the Independent Expert’s report on “conversion therapy,” to be presented at the 44th Human Rights Council in June 2020. It will be the first institutional report covering the topic, piggybacking on the work of non-governmental organizations like OutRight Action International, which released a groundbreaking report on the global reach of so-called conversion therapy in August 2019.

The meeting was attended by about 35 researchers, policymakers, professors, lawyers, civil society representatives, activists, and perhaps most importantly - survivors of “conversion therapy.” Survivors included Mathew Shurka, Co-Founder of Born Perfect Campaign; Matt Ashcroft, Ambassador for No Conversion Canada; and Misha Cerniak, Board Member from the Faith and Rainbow Foundation of Poland. Among the attendees were two of OutRight’s own staff, Consultant Research Advisor Amie Bishop and UN Program Officer Sahar Moazami.

For the meeting, the Independent Expert prepared an extensive literature review, which synthesized all available research and documentation to date on the topic of so-called conversion therapy. Additional information for the review was collected through a call for inputs, which received 60 submissions from UN Member States and 59 from non-governmental organizations.

The goal of the meeting was to discuss the multiple and interrelated dimensions of “conversion therapy” globally, which will inform the Independent Experts’s forthcoming report to the Human Rights Council. Ultimately, the Independent Expert report hopes to shine a light on these damaging practices and spur member states to take action against them. Discussions revolved around several key questions: Who promotes and perpetrates “conversion therapy,” who is subjected to it, and how are survivors affected? What are effective state measures that can be undertaken to deter CT practices via access to justice, legislation, and public policy? What can the Independent Expert Mandate produce that is unique and adds value?

The meeting’s participants recognized that main promoters and perpetrators of “conversion therapy” around the world are often, first and foremost, religious leaders and institutions, as well as public and private mental health and medical providers, and traditional practitioners, all generally with support of or instigation by family members. Unfortunately, religious freedom statutes and exemptions often constitute loopholes to legal or policy efforts to curb SOGIE change practices, and solutions for closing these loopholes are urgently needed. At the same time, banning these harmful practices is also challenging in countries where homosexuality remains criminalized or where “traditional family values” are being promoted as a cover for preventing LGBTIQ people from accessing their full human rights.

It is also clear that more data are needed to understand the full array of SOGIE change practices being perpetrated around the world. OutRight’s recent research, which includes a literature review, a survey of nearly 500 people from 80 countries, and 19 in-depth interviews with survivors representing 11 countries, was presented at the Independent Expert meeting, as were survivor stories and examples of laws and policies being put in place in various jurisdictions to ban or curb “conversion therapy” practices. Additional context-specific research is needed, however, to better characterize the nature of these practices in different countries, and how they can be banned. This includes data that will shed light on intersectional issues such as relative vulnerabilities based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and the like.

Several high-level policymakers, including a member of the French National Assembly, Laurence Vanceunebrock, and the author of Malta’s national ban, Desiree’ Attard, discussed their approaches to curtailing “conversion therapy” in their countries. Ms. Vanceunebrock noted that while there are a range of existing statutes within the French criminal code that could apply to “conversion therapy” practices, they are not used as such. She therefore is advocating for the creation of a specific criminal statute that addresses “conversion therapy” practices. Without compelling data on the nature and scope of the problem, however, it is not easy to make the case for new legislation. Yet, without the legislation, is it difficult to document the problem. The Malta law, which constitutes a national ban of any form of “conversion therapy,” is very comprehensive and part of a series of national laws to strengthen protections against violence and discrimination based on SOGIE. It potentially may serve as a useful model for other countries. Canada, as well, is home to the strongest municipal law against “conversion therapy” in the world, in the city of Edmonton. Just one week after this meeting, the Canadian government proposed a draft national law that is based on the Edmonton statute.

Another important discussion regarding legal and policy pathways for curbing “conversion therapy” addressed the implications of using criminal vs. civil sanctions. Sahar Moazami noted that criminalization often disproportionately affects marginalized populations and so civil sanctions may be more appropriate. In addition, just as freedom of religion works as a roadblock to dismantling “conversion therapy”, professional client-provider relationships and the balance between parental and child rights are hard to regulate. Dainius Puras, who is the UN Independent Expert on the Right to Health, noted that he found the deference to parental rights “quite dangerous,” but that conservative trends in global rights discourse are moving in this direction. Another key focus regarding criminalization of “conversion therapy” was whether certain forms of it constitute cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or torture, enabling the invocation of international human rights law, or whether there should be thresholds for example, that must be reached.

According to the Independent Expert’s agenda, 2020 is entirely dedicated to documenting the practices and harmful effects of so-called conversion therapy. We expect that the forthcoming report will consolidate critical evidence on “conversion therapy” and provide a vital roadmap for curtailing these heinous practices wherever they are being perpetrated.