LGBTI Advocacy at the UN: The Role of Capacity Building and Coalitions

A side view of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council and treaty bodies convene. (UN Photo/Violaine Martin)

Millions of people around the world face human rights violations because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). These violations are often ignored or given insufficient attention by governments, especially when they are committed by government authorities themselves. In this context, the ability of human rights defenders to engage with the United Nations and use its mechanisms to put pressure on states to make positive change becomes even more important.

Yet it is only in the past several years that these defenders have been able to get SOGIESC issues onto the UN agenda. Back in 2004, Brazil was forced to withdraw a resolution on sexual orientation that it introduced at the UN Human Rights Commission (replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006) because it was so contentious. Fifteen years later, the Human Rights Council voted to renew the mandate of its independent expert dedicated to combating violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), first established in 2016.

By 2016, 53 percent of all country reviews by seven UN treaty bodies provided concluding observations that referred to SOGIESC. By 2017, 1,375 recommendations on SOGIESC issues had been made to more than 158 countries within the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) since its first cycle began in 2008. As of late 2018, references to SOGIESC were regularly made by 34 (of 56) of the Human Rights Council’s special procedures mandate holders. SOGIESC issues are increasingly included in the work of UN agencies such as the International Labour Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Development Programme, UNESCO, and the UN Refugee Agency.

How has the conversation progressed from a few isolated references to sexual orientation to the defenders working with UN human rights mechanisms to push for states to receive regular recommendations on these issues in different UN human rights spaces? While there was no one factor that made this possible, an essential element was building the capacity of human rights defenders working on SOGIESC issues.

Initially, progress at the UN was incredibly challenging. Until the 2000s, there had been almost no mention of SOGIESC issues at the UN, and certainly no formal actions by governments to demonstrate that they considered violence and discrimination on the basis of SOGIESC to be human rights violations. Even uttering terms related to SOGIESC within the UN was taboo for states. This was complicated by the fact that few diplomats or UN experts knew what these concepts meant or were aware of the intersectional violence and discrimination faced by LGBTI people around the world. These issues were perceived or portrayed by some not to be human rights issues but creations of the West and abhorrent to their culture and traditional values. On top of this, few working for the protection of the rights of LGBTI people had the necessary knowledge or resources to engage with the UN.

To change this, a few global, regional, and national organizations familiar with UN human rights spaces in Geneva and New York concluded that human rights defenders needed the tools and knowledge to raise SOGIESC issues within UN mechanisms. They started by focusing on building the capacity of defenders to engage strategically with UN treaty bodies. Following the development of the UPR in 2006, initiatives focused on this mechanism to push for equal treatment for LGBTI people in all countries. Alongside these efforts were initiatives to develop capacity to engage with special procedures mandate holders as well as the Human Rights Council on SOGIESC issues.

Some training programs specifically targeted LGBTI groups; others, including those focused on the UPR, involved national coalitions of organizations working across various areas of human rights. The most successful were those providing ongoing advocacy support, following in-person training, and those that helped capacitate defenders and organizations engaged in more than one mechanism and over time. Capacity-building initiatives aimed to make defenders aware of opportunities to obtain financial resources to help them further engage with UN human rights mechanisms and participate in UN sessions in person. They also sought to go beyond the specific individuals trained and reach wider networks.

As human rights defenders gained greater capacity to engage with the UN, various parts of the UN human rights system received more information about SOGIESC issues. As part of training programs, defenders engaged in advocacy missions to brief UN experts and diplomats, raising awareness and understanding of human rights violations and lobbying these actors to take action. This resulted in evidence of serious and widespread human rights violations on the basis of SOGIESC being included in UN documents, and in experts setting out standards and making concrete recommendations to states. Through enhanced interactions with diplomats, defenders were able to identify and build a core group of states willing to champion SOGIESC issues at the UN—something that was essential for the Human Rights Council or General Assembly to be able to include SOGIESC issues in their work.

During this initial engagement with UN bodies and diplomats (as well as with national-level actors), human rights defenders encountered a lack of understanding of where SOGIESC issues fell within the international human rights system. In response to this, human rights experts from around the world, including UN special procedures mandate holders, developed the Yogyakarta Principles (adopted in 2006) and the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10 (adopted in 2017) to articulate how international human rights law applies to issues of SOGIESC. These principles clearly outlined state obligations to protect LGBTI people under existing international human rights law to demonstrate that LGBTI defenders were not seeking “additional rights.” Training programs were aimed at raising awareness of these principles and on how to use them to frame advocacy for better protection of LGBTI persons at the national, regional, and international levels.

In demonstrating that LGBTI rights are human rights, defenders also emphasized that these rights are universal. In capacity-building and advocacy missions relating to the UPR, human rights defenders were trained to target representatives of countries in the Global South. This was integral to highlighting that SOGIESC issues are global and that LGBTI persons exist everywhere.

With increased knowledge of the tools available and increased ability to engage with the UN on issues related to SOGIESC, defenders are having a significant impact at the national and international levels. At the international level, human rights treaty bodies, the UPR, and special procedures mandate holders are producing more recommendations for specific states, and those states are making more commitments. These international outcomes can then be leveraged at the national level to strengthen ongoing advocacy initiatives to protect LGBTI people from violence and discrimination.

The increased volume of information submitted to UN human rights mechanisms also contributes to the adoption of resolutions at the Human Rights Council and General Assembly referring to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). Most recently, as mentioned above, a 2016 resolution created a special procedure mandate dedicated specifically to addressing violence and discrimination on the basis of SOGI, offering LGBTI defenders a tool to address these violations and increase pressure for positive change. Earlier this month, the Human Rights Council voted to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert on violence and discrimination on the basis of SOGI to engage with governments, conduct country visits, support human rights defenders, and report back to the UN on challenges and emergencies that LGBTI communities and human rights defenders face, as well as examples of progress.

Crucially, these training programs have allowed LGBTI rights defenders to represent themselves in UN spaces, speak up, and bear witness to their struggles across the globe. This power to speak and be heard has helped build the strength and resilience of LGBTI movements, going far beyond honing the skills of individual defenders to draft effective submissions to the UN. More broadly, they have also enhanced support and solidarity for LGBTI communities across human rights movements and increased awareness of the violence and discrimination they face.

These successes are a testament to the importance of building capacity through the development of resources and training for defenders of LGBTI human rights. However, challenges remain, in particular the lack of resources available to defenders to include UN advocacy in their work. While the number of tools and guides available to defenders continues to grow, training programs remain limited. There are groups and intersectionalities within the LGBTI communities that continue to be marginalized, such as women and intersex persons. Furthermore, as we mark almost 20 years of ongoing engagement with UN human rights mechanisms in relation to SOGIESC issues, it is clear that successes at the international level do not automatically translate into progress on the ground.

Capacity development initiatives will continue and focus on being inclusive of groups with less access to opportunities in the past, such as defenders of the rights of intersex and trans persons, and working toward the implementation of UN standards and recommendations at the national level. With enhanced communication and solidarity across the LGBTI global movement, as well as human rights movement more generally, the fight against violence and discrimination will not only continue but strengthen.

Helen Nolan is Programme Manager for Training and LGBTI rights at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). Helen tweets at @Helen_ISHR.

Tess McEvoy is Programme Manager for LGBTI rights and Legal Counsel at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). Tess tweets at @Tess_L_McEvoy.