Vitit Muntarbhorn is Poised to Deliver as SOGI Independent Expert, but Community Engagement is Necessary

For many human rights activists and academics in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, Vitit Muntarbhorn is a well respected and recognizable name. Muntarbhorn, from Thailand, was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education in 2004 and has been active in engaging the United Nations special mandates system for decades. His appointment as the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography between 1990-1994 is among the many special mandates he has assumed, including his current role as a Commissioner on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. However, it may be his upcoming Human Rights Council (HRC) Independent Expert position that has heightened the interest in Muntarbhorn and that may ultimately solidify his place in LGBTIQ history.

On the 30th of August, Muntarbhorn was selected by the President of the HRC to act as the first-ever Independent Expert on the “protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).” The position was mandated by the passing of resolution A/HRC/RES/32/2 on June 30 of this year. A campaign of 628 nongovernmental organizations from 151 countries advocated for the adoption of the resolution and for the establishment of the SOGI Independent Expert position. Barring any obstruction, Muntarbhorn will be appointed on September 30th, at the 33rd Session of the Human Rights Council.

The world is now questioning, what does it take to be the SOGI Independent Expert and how will Muntarbhorn measure up to the challenge? The Consultative Group advising the HRC President on who should hold the position, the HRC President himself, and many who have worked with him in the past certainly believe he is more than qualified for the role.

Having worked with him briefly on the joint United Nations Development Programme, US Agency for International Development, and Swedish International Development Agency’s, ‘Being LGBTI in Asia’ initiative, where he serves as a Technical Advisory Group member, I can understand why. Muntarbhorn was instrumental to the success of phase one of the initiative and to the development of a stakeholder engagement strategy to address challenges facing the LGBTIQ community in the Asia-Pacific for phase two. Among other capacities, he has worked with National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) on advancing SOGI issues since 2009 and led the workshop on “the Role of NHRIs in Promoting and Protecting the Rights and Health of LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific,” at the first-ever regional consultation on LGBTIQ human rights held at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific in 2015.

Three formidable activists from Thailand, Anjana Suvarnananda, founder of Anjaree, Thailand’s first LGBT rights organization; Nada Chaiyajit, a trans and intersex rights activist; and Chumaphorn (Dao) Taengkliang, founder of Togetherness for Equality and Action Group as well as two colleagues focused on the Asia-Pacific region from OutRight Action International, Grace Poore and Ging Cristobal, weigh in on the issue. All agree that Muntarbhorn is poised to deliver as the SOGI Independent Expert, however community guidance is key to his success.  

“His past experiences as a Special Rapporteur means that he knows the ropes and how to leverage the system already, leaving more time to spend on research and consultations with the LGBTIQ community,” stated Suvarnananda.

She expands, “While he is an academic and not an activist, he consults civil society and engages on LGBTIQ issues frequently, showing both his commitment to understanding the evolving nature of the issues facing our community and his interest in elevating community voices.”

Ging Cristobal, Project Coordinator for Asia at OutRight Action International, agreed, “From the short time I worked with him during Phase one of the UNDP Being LGBTI in Asia initiative, and in other capacities, I can say he listens and absorbs everything, provides very good perspective, and is open to dialogue. He is humble, approachable and very knowledgable on international LGBTI rights issues. These issues are not new to him, he was part of the creation of the Yogyakarta Principles after all.”

While Muntarbhorn may be a household name with many Asian human rights activists, he is arguably less well known outside of the region and his qualifications for the SOGI Independent Expert position have come under scrutiny. The scrutiny is understandable and important considering the Independent Expert’s research, analyses, and reports will guide how the UN will respond to LGBTIQ human rights abuses at the national and international level.

To Suvarnananda, Muntarbhorn’s strong attributes outweigh any shortcomings. She explains,

“Anyone coming into this role is faced with a monumental task to understand different cultural contexts and to recognize the diversity in issues impacting the LGBTIQ communities across the world. This cannot be done alone. It is the role of activists to work with the Independent Expert to ensure that our issues are accurately understood.”

For Dao Taengkliang, the way forward is through community engagement, “Professor Vitit, just as anyone else who would hold the position, can still learn a great deal from activists on how to most effectively advocate for the rights of LGBTIQ people, particularly in understanding the nuances in issues impacting individuals of diverse gender expression. At the same time, activists can also learn how to be more effective in pushing the human rights agenda at the UN from him.”  

Grace Poore, Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific at OutRight, supports the proposal of Muntarbhorn to serve as the SOGI Independent Expert. She raises that while the community has a responsibility to engage Muntarbhorn, equal burden should also be placed on the mandate holder.

“Part of being the Independent Expert is being accountable to LGBTIQ communities. He has to build his own capacity to carry out the mandate properly and with integrity. Vitit will have to be strongly urged to address sexual orientation as well as gender identity and gender expression, and make visible concerns across the LGBTIQ spectrum. This will be different for lesbians, transmen, transwomen, gay men, bisexual persons, and intersex persons,” she said.

Nada Chaiyajit agrees, noting that there is currently a lack of equal representation of LGBTI issues at the UN. “Trans and intersex rights need to be elevated and included in all discussions,” urges Chaiyajit. She commented, “Five years ago I may have argued that Professor Vitit was unaware of issues concerning the trans and intersex communities, but that is less the case today. In the multiple encounters I have had with him in Thailand, South Korea, and elsewhere this year alone, whenever he spoke about SOGI, he included trans and intersex issues. He led discussions thoughtfully and with a solid human rights understanding. I believe he will continue to consult the trans and intersex community and ensure that our issues are prioritized.”

Suvarnananda, Chaiyajit, and Taengkliang also hope that his appointment as the first SOGI Independent Expert will lead to greater legislative protections for the LGBTIQ community in Thailand and in Southeast Asia more broadly.

There is no question that the world will continue to both applaud and scrutinize Muntarbhorn’s qualifications and performance as he carries out his responsibilities as the SOGI Independent Expert. And while the human rights community ought to have high expectations of him, the reality is also that Muntarbhorn will face many challenges in fulfilling his mandate. These challenges will be heightened by overt opposition from multiple member states and restricted access to many key stakeholders. It is in the best interest of LGBTI community members, activists, and allies to engage with Muntarbhorn, to guide him in this process, and to assist him in overcoming the obstacles.

OutRight Action International welcomes the opportunity to advance the human rights protections of LGBTIQ people everywhere and is committed to working with Vitit Muntarbhorn in his capacity as the SOGI Independent Expert.