What does "Sovereignty" at the United Nations really mean today?

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On September 19, 2017, US President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly where he highlighted sovereignty as the guiding principle of international relations. He cited the word over 21 times and declared, “Success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world.” At OutRight, the emphasis on sovereignty raised alarm bells for our work defending the human rights of LGBTI people in the international system.  

Sovereignty in and of itself is not juxtaposed to international law or multilateral cooperation. In fact the basic idea of sovereignty is central to the founding principles of the UN. The UN serves as an intergovernmental organization where independent nations come together to work in cooperation for their national interests. The framers of the UN did not intend to create a world governing body but rather a body where independent nations could gather to discuss issues in an increasingly globalized world. However, the recent rise in ethno-nationalism has led to a push away from investment in multilateral relationships between States. The protection of State “sovereignty” has been summoned to justify this trend and can be seen in the results of the Brexit referendum, the success of the Trump led ‘America First’ campaign and the rise in popularity of the German anti-immigration party AfD in the recent September elections.

In this environment, a number of UN Member States have increased efforts to insert language around sovereignty within UN decisions, otherwise know as Resolutions, and in particular those dealing with human rights issues. Recent examples include an amendment on state sovereignty introduced by Singapore in the Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty Resolution during the 71st Session of the General Assembly in 2016, as well as the attempt to insert language around sovereignty in both the Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Resolution and the Question of the Death Penalty Resolution during the most recent Human Rights Council Session this September.  

So, what does this form of sovereignty really mean? In the current attempts to privilege “sovereignty” in multilateral negotiations on human rights issues, Member States in reality are pushing for the UN to ignore national human rights violations. These States want to continue to discriminate against marginalized communities with impunity under the guise of ‘national interests’ and ‘cultural values.’

For international advocacy on the human rights of LGBTI people in particular, sovereignty is a well known strategy for excusing human rights violations. During the 71st Session of the General Assembly over the Fall of 2016, we witnessed repeated attacks using sovereignty arguments against the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on prevention against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). More recently, we have seen a number of State governments crackdown on members of their LGBTQI community in an effort to “uphold national morals.”

Egypt is one of the most vocal Member States at the UN calling on “respect for national sovereignty” especially in relation the human rights of LGBTI people. This call is not just a difference in approach to international relations. In the last two weeks, the Egyptian government has heightened its campaign against the LGBTQI community by arresting over 43 members of the community and banning all “positive” reporting on homosexuality. The government justified these arrests under national laws against “debauchery” and have subjected some of the detained individuals to forced anal examinations, a practice that has been denounced as cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. This is what Egypt wants the UN to ignore when it invokes its sovereign right to bypass international human rights law in relation to SOGI.

Although the notion of sovereignty as imagined by the founders of the UN continues to hold true, reimagined and distorted notions of sovereignty have no place when they are used to justify discrimination and the violation of human rights. OutRight will continue to work in the international system to shine a light on human rights violations and to call out the ramifications of privileging sovereignty above the human rights of LGBTI people.

1  The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a 6th resolution calling for a universal moratorium on executions, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (December 20, 2016)

2  Egypt: Mass Arrests Amid LGBT Media Blackout, Human Rights Watch (October 6, 2017)