The Asian yes vote

A key part of the success of the yes vote was underpinned by the fact that three Asian countries voted for the resolution. Of the three only Vietnam, in an explanation before the vote, addressed the Council. Vietnam said:

Mr. President, Vietnam welcomes the initiative and efforts of members of international community to prevent and combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We are going to vote in favor of draft L.2/Rev.1 as amended. Vietnam would like to stress that the mandate holder of the new Special Procedures endorsed in this draft will discharge her/his duty strictly in conformity with codes of conduct enshrined in HRC resolution 5/2 – contributing to the efforts of addressing violence and discrimination in this regard.

It is imperative that this Special Procedure when established in the future will have fostering genuine dialogue among all relevant stakeholders with a view to bringing about positive impact people around the world. In this process, differences among diversified society must be respected and taken into account instead of being negatively amplified.

The reason for Vietnam’s yes vote lay in changes both in domestic as well as international policy with respect to LGBT rights. A letter by a number of civil society organisations in Vietnam noted as below:

In recent years, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Vietnam has shown openness and support for the equality of LGBT people within the UN as well as on the domestic front. In 2014, Vietnam voted in favour of the UN HRC resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. During the country’s 2nd cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, Vietnam accepted a recommendation to enact a law to fight discrimination that guarantees equality for all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. We note that the government has taken positive steps to realize its international commitments such as by amending the 2005 Civil Code thereby allowing transgender persons to undergo sex transition and subsequently change their gender markers in legal documents.[1]

Vietnam’s yes vote, was the result of a strong movement which has brought about dramatic changes at the national level. As Tran Tung the Director of the ICS Center observed:

When we started our movement in Vietnam in 2008, we always put community empowerment and social change at the heart of our campaign. Gradually, we gained the support of the media, and then the general public. The SOGIE issues are no longer sensitive in Vietnam. People understand that we exist, we are part of life and our rights should be protected. The social change and wider support that we enjoy in society plays a key role. On one hand, it gives us a leverage to negotiate with the government. And on the other hand, it makes it easier for people to publicly say that they are supporters/allies. As a result the government of Vietnam has started taking measures to protect rights of LGBTIQ, including revision of laws on marriage and family (to remove the prohibition on same-sex marriage) and civil codes (to allow gender transition in the country). During the process, we built good partnerships with Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who are consulted about what to vote. All these factors played a key role in influencing the government’s position on SOGIE issues.[2]

While Mongolia did not speak in this session, a clue as to why they voted yes is offered in the statement of Undeg Purevsuren, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, at the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council. Mr. Purevsuren stated that his country had made an enduring commitment to human rights when it embarked on the path of democracy 25 years ago, and when in 1992 it had adopted its first democratic constitution. Mongolia had abolished the death penalty in law with the adoption of the revised Criminal Code. The revised Criminal Code’s definition of torture was brought into conformity with Article 1 of the Convention against Torture. Furthermore, the revised Criminal Code criminalized domestic violence, discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, forced child labour and corporal punishment of children.

The Mongolian yes vote can also be seen as an outcome of very advocacy for LGBT equality both at nationally as well as international levels. As Anaraa Nyamdorj, Executive Director of the LGBT Centre notes:

The Government of Mongolia received a huge wake-up call during its first UPR Review in November 2010 where issues of SOGIE-related human rights situation in Mongolia was highlighted by 9 countries of which 8 made a recommendation to start implementing concerted efforts to end discrimination against LGBT people. This review was followed a few days later by the UN Committee against Torture review of Mongolia, to which the Centre has also submitted a shadow report highlighting various issues, especially hate crimes, against LGBT people in Mongolia. Four months following that, the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) has also made two recommendations on the situation of LGBT people in Mongolia. These back-to-back international advocacy efforts and the response provided by the international instruments appears to have been a great reminder of the fact that there is a specific segment of the population that still is not protected equally despite the fact that both the Constitution and international law mandate equality. On top of these recommendations, the LGBT Centre continued its international advocacy at the UN level, obtaining 17 more recommendations in 2015 UPR Review of Mongolia around LGBTI and non-discrimination, CESCR recommendations in 2015, and CEDAW recommendations in 2016.

At the domestic level, the Centre continued to engage various ministries and agencies constructively through individual meetings, meetings with the government and civil society, especially through the Human Rights NGO’s Forum that has been appointed as an unofficial focal point for civil society engagement for UPR implementation by the Government. There was also continued visibility and humanising of the LGBTI rights movement throughout and visible LGBTI activists of the LGBT Centre and its public events such as Equality and Pride Days all of which played an enormous role. The continued engagement of the Government led to the inclusion of hate crimes/hate speech in a very broad conceptualisation in the present Criminal Code passed in December 2015, which now criminalises broad concept of any discrimination, with protected grounds expressly including SOGIE.

When the Centre was informed of the upcoming vote, we engaged the Government. We called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform them of the impending vote and organized within the civil society to add their signatures to the international petition to civil society to establish the mandate, as well as organized with the Human Rights NGOs’ Forum to send a joint letter reminding the Mongolian government of their intentional obligation and urging them to well as urging them to maintain their leadership in the region on equality and non-discrimination, which they had assured via the new Criminal Code.[3]

South Korea did not speak during the proceedings, but South Korea also voted yes for the 2014 resolution, so there is a consistent track record of support. The consistent Korean support for LGBT rights can be attributed to a mixture of factors including domestic level activism, the aspiration of the Korean state to be seen as a ‘first world country’, the fact that Ban Ki Moon who is South Korean has been a vocal supporter of LGBT rights as well as a desire not to be seen as less progressive than Japan. [4]

The one conclusion one can make about the Asian yes vote is that the strength of domestic level activism plays a strong role in influencing the country’s foreign policy priorities. If South Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia voted yes, the vote is the result of strong domestic level campaigning on LGBT rights.

[1] Letter dated 24.06.16 addressed to His Excellency, Mr Pham Binh Minh, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vietnam from ICS Center, ISEE, PFLAG Vietnam.
[2]Email communication with Tran Tung, Director of the ICS Center, Vietnam.  
[3] Based on email exchange with Anaraa Nyamdorj, Executive Director of the  LGBT Centre, Mongolia.
[4]Based on an email exchange with Minhee Ryu,Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights(KLPH), South Korea