The United Nations Human Rights Council agreed yesterday to appoint an independent investigator to help protect LGBTI people worldwide from discrimination and violence.
Following a four-hour long debate, which was at times quite heated with Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries expressing strong opposition, the council agreed to accept a resolution to create an “independent expert” to help protect “against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” by a majority of 23 to 18, with six abstentions.
The expert, who will have a three-year tenure, will have a mandate to monitor LGBTI rights, identify the causes of discrimination against LGBTI people internationally, and to liaise with governments on addressing the root problems.
While the vote was only narrowly passed by the 47-member council, the resolution is seen as the United Nations’ most overt statement to date that LGBTI rights are human rights, and campaigners have already pointed to its significance as a major achievement – and potentially even a turning point.
Previous resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011 and 2014 asked for the human rights office to prepare reports into international LGBTI rights, but generally there has been little mention of LGBTI issues elsewhere in the UN. The 2011 resolution had stated “there should be no discrimination or violence against people based on their sexual orientation”, but some Islamic states had rejected it.
During the debate, British ambassador Julian Braithwaite had advocated taking as firm a line as possible. He argued: “This Council regularly – and rightly – passes resolutions on racism, women and children. Yet, on this issue, we often hear of culture and tradition as reasons to justify violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“This affects people in this room, and people in my team who are LGBT. Are you saying it is okay to discriminate against them based on their sexual orientation and gender identity? To hit, torture, or possibly kill them? Because that is what you are supporting, if you vote against this resolution.”
Shawn Gaylord, an advocacy counsel with Human Rights First, said that the decision was both powerfully symbolic and likely to make a real difference in practical terms. He said: “It makes clear that LGBT rights are human rights. That’s an essential part of the U.N. moving forward. On a practical level, there are resources that will flow and more staffing for LGBT issues to be researched, reviewed and recommendations made. If you’re talking about whether LGBT people should be protected from violence, a lot of countries would speak up for that…Some countries are more challenging than others. But there’s always room for debate.”
John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, added: “Today, the UN took a historic step forward. By creating a UN expert, the Human Rights Council has given official voice to those facing violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity the world over.
“There can be no turning back, and we look forward to working with civil society colleagues and the new UN expert toward a world free from violence and discrimination for all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The resolution was put forward by a number of Latin American countries – including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay – which have some of the most advanced legal protections for LGBTI people internationally. It was also supported by the United States and a number of European countries.
The principal sponsors of the proposal were led by Mexico, whose ambassador Jorge Lomónaco urged council members to “remember Orlando” and “give hope to millions” as he explained that thousands of people continue to be subjected to violence and other forms of discrimination based on either their sexual orientation or their gender identity.
The memory of Orlando weighed heavily on proceedings, with Jessica Stern, executive director for Outright Action International, saying afterwards: “Orlando became part of the conversation around the resolution…I think it caused some governments on the fence to stop and take their decision much more seriously. You can’t keep your head in the sand after what happened at the Pulse nightclub.”
Opposition came from Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and some African and predominantly Islamic states. The Saudi Arabian ambassador, Faisal Trad, had sought to bring a “no-action motion” to suppress debate, arguing against “the imposition of certain ideas” while ignoring religious and cultural sensitivities. However, his attempted motion was defeated. Nigeria claimed the resolution was “divisive”, while the Pakistani delegation accused it of “promoting of certain notions, concepts and lifestyles on which there is no consensus”.
638 non-governmental organisations from 151 countries had signed a joint statement of support in advance of the meeting, in which they argued it was time for the Human Rights Council “to take meaningful action to end these abuses and advance positive reforms.”