On September 30th, 2016, history was made at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, when it appointed the first Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The appointment was relatively smooth, and there was little objection and no procedural tactics used to complicate the process.
Saudi Arabia (on behalf of Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – OIC – countries except Albania) took the floor to argue that sexual orientation and gender identity are controversial notions, are not universally agreed and represent a particular set of values and lifestyle not accepted by the majority of societies. They also maintained that they directly invade on the cultural and religious sensitivities of a number of UN member States. They went on to say that they do not recognise the establishment of this mandate holder, would boycott the mandate and would not interact with the mandate. The Russian Federation also indicated that they will not cooperate with this mandate.
ARC International was pleased to see that Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn was appointed to the position, and I personally feel that if anyone is able to bridge a divide with moderate OIC member states, he stands a very good chance of being successful. Both Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, have vibrant national human rights commissions that are members of the Asia Pacific Forum. Vitit Muntarbhorn has worked in this space on a number of occasions around the role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in promoting and protecting the rights and health of LGBTI persons in Asia and the Pacific.
Malaysia, in particular, tries to position itself as a moderate Muslim country and a key player within the UN system (as demonstrated by its multiple bids for positions in the Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council). There is room to hope that the list of OIC member states that fall into the “except” category, like Albania, will continue to grow and that many countries will cooperate with his mandate in ways that are meaningful.
Vitit Muntarbhorn also “lives and works” intersectionality in a profound way, and that will help him immensely as he begins work in this mandate. His work on refugee issues, indigenous peoples, and child rights is extremely well-respected. He has also been a Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea and was one of the Commissioners on the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. He thus brings a wealth of experience to his new role and this experience would be vital in navigating the divides in which the discussion of SOGI at the UN level finds itself.
Although Vitit Muntarbhorn might not remember this, he and I first met in early 2002, before ARC International was even founded. At the time, I was chairing the International Affairs Committee of Canada’s national LGBT organization, Egale Canada. We were asked by a supporter and expat living in Thailand (the famous Professor Doug Sanders) to leverage funds from a South East programme that Canada was about to dismantle, and co-organize the first ever convening for LGBT activists in the region.
It was a daring move, but we succeeded, and I met and began working with folks at that meeting who are still doing LGBTI advocacy in the region years later, like Ging Cristobal who is now Project Coordinator for Asia & the Pacific at OutRight Action International. Vitit was a colleague of Doug’s at Chulalongkorn University and was invited to speak at a plenary session, which was open to the public, in a large hotel ballroom away from the conference site.
I remember that evening like it was yesterday. The room had been partitioned and in the next space was a wedding party with a very loud (and bad) karaoke party happening. When Doug introduced Vitit, all we could hear was loud horrible singing from the party next door. However, we huddled in and tried to pay attention to this speaker, whom Doug had introduced as someone no less than brilliant. I expected a cool seasoned academic who might talk above some of the activists in the room and discuss rights in a way that is sometimes inaccessible to front-line activists. What we experienced was a humble, charming person who cracked jokes about the singing next door and had as many compliments and praise for the people in the room, as we had for him.
Fast forward four years to 2006, and ARC is now established and in full swing with a Geneva office. We are about to embark on a ground-breaking new initiative to co-organize an expert meeting to develop a set of principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. Two experts are approached and agree to co-chair the gathering, Sonia Onufer Corrêa and Vitit Muntarbhorn. I can’t imagine two better candidates for this job. Along with a brilliant team of international experts and civil society partners, they guide the careful negotiations and successful adoption of the Yogyakarta Principles.
For both co-chairs, the work didn’t stop there. My next interaction with Vitit is around the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights in Copenhagen where he was an invited keynote speaker to discuss the Yogyakarta Principles. Again, with humility and praise he acknowledged the work of ARC International, and in particular my (then) Geneva-based Co-Director, John Fisher, who had acted as a human machine behind the scenes to move the process forward.
It is clear to me that Vitit Muntarbhorn will bring professionalism and integrity to this work. It is also clear that he will bring extreme humility and be a good listener. Civil society needs all of these attributes to effectively engage with and support his mandate for the next three years.
And this is my call to all advocates on SOGI issues: we need to support him in this important undertaking. We need to support all mandate holders, but his mandate will draw particular attention and condemnation. Indeed, it already has. It wasn’t enough to call for the mandate. Now is the time to ensure that he can fulfill this vital role and in that, civil society’s role will be crucial in the next three years.