Defending the Human Rights of LGBTI People at the UN

A high-level event on the role of political leadership and legislative reform in ending violence and discrimination against LGBTI people hosted by the UN LGBTI Core Group. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

Over the past twenty-five years, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community has witnessed notable progress in advancing support for and protections of the rights of LGBTI people in multilateral systems, including the United Nations. A survey of the long path traversed in these years, however, gives an idea of what is still needed.

Progress for the LGBTI community began in 1994 with an historic case—Toonen vs. Australia—brought before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In the case, the committee found that sexual orientation was a protected status within the anti-discrimination provisions of the ICCPR and that laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity violated an individual’s right to privacy.

Since that time, recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people has continued to progress in various bodies of the UN. In New York, it has been evident in the increasingly inclusive language in official UN documents, as well as in the visibility of and dialogue around the lived experiences of LGBTI people. The UN LGBTI Core Group, an informal cross-regional group of twenty-eight member states working to ensure universal respect for the human rights of LGBTI people, has significantly contributed to this increase in visibility by holding regular side events and delivering topical statements on issues specific to the LGBTI community during official UN sessions.

This progress has not come without challenges. While member states negotiate hundreds of resolutions in the General Assembly and Security Council each year, so far only one resolution has explicitly referenced sexual orientation and gender identity, and none have referenced gender expression or sex characteristics.

Another challenge has been securing protections for discriminatory killings of LGBTI people. The biannual resolution on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions (EJEs) calls on states to protect the life of all people and to investigate killings based on discriminatory grounds. Sexual orientation was added to the list of discriminatory grounds in 2000, and gender identity in 2012. Under the guise of protecting traditional values, the family, freedom of religion, and the rights of the child, as well as of defending against the alleged imposition of “Western values,” a coalition of states has repeatedly attempted to remove both grounds from the resolution. This would effectively remove a crucial safeguard against extrajudicial violence against LGBTI individuals, who are particularly at risk of violence. In 2010, an amendment submitted by the African Group of member states proposing to delete reference to sexual orientation was even adopted by the Third Committee of the General Assembly. Due in large part to a massive mobilization effort by civil society, the language was reinstated several months later during the final vote at the General Assembly.

The EJE resolution was also taken up by the General Assembly during its 73rd Session in 2018. The resolution once again referenced sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), and an attempt was made to remove the paragraph that included the language, this time by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Notably however, for the first time, a number of states within the OIC broke away from supporting the amendment, indicating that there is less regional consensus against these vulnerable groups than the OIC has been suggesting.

While fewer countries voting against language on SOGI in the EJE resolution can be seen as evidence of progress, a concerted attack on language around “gender” has been undertaken in negotiations on several other resolutions. Representatives from the United States have attempted to remove the word “gender” from draft resolutions in several negotiations. They have requested instead to replace it with the term “women,” a move that directly aims to exclude trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex people.

During the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 2019, this attack continued through various channels. A number of states attacked “gender” language in the official outcome document of the CSW, hoping to replace it with narrower terms. During the closing segment of the CSW, Brazil delivered a statement that explicitly attacked gender diversity by dissociating itself from an expansive definition of “gender” and attempted to define gender as sex, meaning “defined as biological male and female.”

In addition to these attacks, several right-wing civil society groups targeted the human rights of LGBTI people at CSW. Two side events that focused on gender-diverse individuals argued that gender diversity undermines family and the biological functions of men and women. One organization even carried out a targeted cyber-attack against the diplomat who was facilitating the negotiations, sending over 3,000 text messages to her personal phone demanding that the official outcome document not include language around abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, or comprehensive sex education.

Even with these unprecedented attacks, progressive member states and civil society organizations were able to increase LGBTI visibility. In the official outcome document, civil society and like-minded states were able to retain language on multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, diversity, and women human rights defenders. In a positive sign, there were three side events exclusively dedicated to the progress of and remaining challenges facing LGBTI people, including the first state-sponsored event at the CSW focusing exclusively on trans and gender-diverse people’s lives. A number of other side events also included LGBTI speakers.

The events of the past year at UN headquarters reflect a growing reality that human rights broadly, and LGBTI rights specifically, are under attack by some member states and civil society organizations. With growing evidence that the rise in right-wing nationalism will continue at least into the near future, these proliferating attacks are sure to continue. Progressive civil society and like-minded states must resist this dangerous trend. To date, their ongoing commitment and collaboration have safeguarded the progress made, but as the opposition continues to grow, states and activists must outgrow and out-strategize these forces to ensure we continue to move forward and not regress in the fight for equality and human rights for all.

Sahar Moazami is United Nations Program Officer at OutRight Action International.