By Sharan A. Bhavnani*
A Growing Movement:
Over the last decade, the movement for the recognition of rights for the LGBTI group has gained traction. Most recently, the 32nd Session of Human Rights Council was convened in Geneva in June of 2016. This Session became the forum for drafting and passing the third HRC resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).
Notably, the resolution this year surpassed the previous ones in what it seeks to achieve. It appoints an ‘Independent Expert’ on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is also important to recognise that many Civil Society Organisations such as the Allied Rainbow Community (ARC) have been very vocal and active in the civil society space, trying to push for LGBTI rights over the years. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that they hosted a side event – “Ending Violence against LGBT People? Addressing Protection Gaps in the UN System” – during the HRC Session in Geneva.
What was, however, surprising was the turn out for the event. Generally, at the Palais des Nations, it is uncommon to find side events hosted by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to be densely attended. This event seemed to be the exception, with Salle XVII left with no seats left! The event was this well attended for two reasons – first, the panel and the discussion, and second, the importance of the issue.
The Panel and the Discussion:
The panel consisted of Joleen Brown Mataele, Tonga Leiti’s Association, from the Pacific Islands; Fadi Saleh, a Syrian LGBT activist; Yahia Zaidi, from Mantiqitna Network; Sheherezade Kara, Human Rights Consultant, and John Fisher from Human Rights Watch. The discussion was moderated by the host Arvind Narrain from the ARC.
The theme of the discussion was introduced through a tribute to Orlando which consisted of images of vigils to the victims of Orlando by LGBTI groups around the world. What stood out most was the fact that the primary focus of the discussion that was to follow was not to be based on technicalities of International Law, or the language of the (then draft) resolution on SOGI. It was, rather, personal experiences. The members of the panel drew everyone’s attention to real instances of discrimination and atrocities. Examples that they brought out were from socio-economic, political and social backgrounds distinct from each other. Joleen led the discussion on how religious views of a majority of people have impacted the LGBTI community in Tonga. These views have influenced the Government, leading to laxity in protecting the rights of the community which seemed to have a Government that was not very concerned with SOGI related issues. She was followed by Fadi, who highlighted the atrocities faced by the community in Syria due to not only their oppressive regime, but also due to the ISIS in various pockets on the country. He suggested that the media should play an active role in bringing out instances of atrocities in the region. The next speaker, Yahia, took the lead from the essence of Joleen’s shared experience – that the public’s sense of morality (which, in Tonga, was linked to religion) plays an important role in determining the position of a Government regarding SOGI issues. He spoke in light of the position of the Moroccan Government, where the State authorities seemed cautious in dispensing justice when it came to atrocities and discrimination faced by the community. He was followed by Sheherezade, who drew everyone’s attention to the plight of LBTI women, in particular, around the world. The last speaker on the panel was John Fischer; he took everyone back to the images shown in the beginning – especially those from Orlando after the unfortunate hate crime against the community. Arvind Narain, the moderator, after the speakers made their comments, introduced the text of the resolution. He attempted to highlight, by referring to the issues brought forward by the panel, the need for the Independent Expert in furthering the agenda of the community. Such an Expert could create a space for discourse, especially in countries where a discussion on the rights of the community is stifled. All speakers on the panel reemphasised the need of such an appointment.
The Importance of the Issue:
Apart from an enriching and constructive discussion on LGBTI rights, the attendance in the room signified the importance SOGI related issues have garnered over the years. Initially, it was nearly impossible to get State parties to engage on SOGI issues in the international fora. Now, however, this seems to have changed. Not only would one find a resolution tabled before the Council on expanding the engagement of State parties through the HRC on the issues; but also would find over fourteen State parties attending and engaging in the side event.
It is very rare to find State representatives to be outside their negotiation rooms, let alone attending side events. The fact that the authoring sponsors behind the resolution were present, in addition to other State party representatives like the EU, shows that the movement has, in fact, grown. It has become larger than ever, and seems to be on its way to garner more attention and traction in the years to come.
SOGI issues, like many issues of global importance, are slowly getting lost in the jargon of International Human Rights jurisprudence. Behind every principle of human rights debated in the HRC lies a real story. A story with real actors, facing real discrimination and atrocities on a daily basis. The discussion brought out the need for a text in the resolution that keeps in mind the reality of suffering without getting lost in principles debated in abstraction. It suggested that we must not only look at the issue through the ‘text’, but rather the ‘context’. It was reassuring to find that State party representatives were engaging with civil society constructively.
Undoubtedly, the panel discussion achieved two goals. First, it furthered the discourse on LGBTI rights and SOGI related issues. Second, it mirrored an unabashed and growing movement – where even State parties engaged with the civil society at large.
Hopefully, the movement shall only move forward and progress from here.
*Sharan A. Bhavnani – III Year, B.A., LL.B. (Hons.), National Law School of India University, Bangalore