NEWSFLASH: UN Human Rights Council Ramps Up the Fight for LGBT Rights

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed its first Independent Expert on violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The role of the Independent Expert will be to assess existing international human rights legislation and advocacy efforts concerning the protection of LGBT individuals and identify and address causes of violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Human Rights Council, which consists of 47 member states, voted 23 in favor and 18 against to pass the Western-backed measure with six abstentions. The decision, which came after hours of heated debate and 11 separate amendments were proposed, is in line with a broader initiative by UN bodies to embrace LGBT rights as human rights that has taken place in recent years.

In 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with its first official UN report on the issue. Prevention and elimination of violence against members of the LGBT community has been emphasized in a wide swath of official speeches and statements made by UN officials in the past six years. In a time when violence against LGBT individuals is running rampant, it is crucial that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is recognized as an international human rights crisis.

16 nations, including China and Russia, came out swinging in opposition to the measure, often claiming it would impose Western values that ran counter to their cultural identities and unduly interfere with the affairs of sovereign states. Saudi Arabia attempted to pass a no-action motion to prevent a vote on the measure, which was rejected after Mexico asserted that “closing the dialogue should not be an option to hinder progress on human rights protection.” Some members of the 57-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation declared that they opposed the measure on religious and cultural grounds. Pakistan argued that “the Council had to respect each culture and its particularities.”

Countries supporting the resolution argued that violence on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation is an important and distinct type of discrimination that mandates a direct response from the Council, which already works to combat myriad other forms of abuse and human rights violations. Supporting countries emphasized the need to recognize and combat the reality of violence against LGBT individuals, holding that it was the responsibility of the Council to address the issue. “This Council regularly–and rightly–passes resolutions on racism, women and children,” argued British Ambassador Julian Braithwaite, “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.” 

Brazil argued that the legislation must be passed to ensure that, in the course of protecting human rights around the globe, we “[leave] no one behind.”

Though Western countries in UN forums often openly call for protective measures for LGBT individuals, it is worth noting that many of them have only just begun to pass progressive measures addressing queer and trans rights—and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender remains a very grave concern worldwide. Mexico called upon other members of the Human Rights Council to remember the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando in June as they cast their votes on Thursday’s resolution.

Moving forward, it is important to recall the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a speech on Human Rights Day in 2010:

As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. When there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day.




Natalie Geismar is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, where she double majors in International and Area Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is an ardent feminist with a passion for human rights work and advocacy of all varieties and hopes to become some combination of international lawyer/activist/journalist/Amal Clooney in the future.