Q&A: creating a UN mechanism to address human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity

“It is our duty, under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere. … We need regular reporting to verify that violations are genuinely being addressed. I count on this Council and all people of conscience to make this happen. The time has come.”

– UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in his address to the Human Rights Council, 2012

 

Why bring attention to human rights violations based on SOGI?

Around the world, millions of people face human rights violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI), including killings, torture, rape, criminal sanctions, violence, repression of freedom of expression and association, attacks and restrictions on human rights defenders, denial of one’s self-defined gender identity, anddiscrimination includingin health, education, housing and employment. Civil society organizations in all regions of the world have documented and reported on these violations for many decades and called on the United Nations, regional organizations and governments to meet their obligations and responsibilities to prevent and address these abuses. As a result of this evidence base, UN Special Procedures, the OHCHR, and the Secretary General have increasingly brought these violations to the Human Rights Council’s attention.

In response to this widespread pattern of abuses, 5 Latin American governments (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay) have pledged to present a resolution at the upcoming June 2016 session of the UN Human Rights Council, with a view to creating a UN Independent Expert to address violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

What is a UN Independent Expert?

The UN Human Rights Council regularly creates dedicated mechanisms to bring sustained attention to human rights violations on various grounds. These can take the form of a Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert or Working Group comprised of several experts. Collectively, these are known by the umbrella term “UN Special Procedures”.

Special Procedures have been called the “jewel in the crown” of the UN human rights system. Existing Special Procedures have been created on issues such as racism, violence against women, discrimination against women, persons with disabilities, freedom of religion, persons with albinism, people of African descent, rights of the child, Indigenous persons, and the rights of older persons.

Special Procedures monitor and document human rights violations, prepare reports on a broad variety of issues, raise awareness with governments, promote good practices and positive reforms, support the work of human rights defenders, develop the international human rights framework, and ensure a space for interactive dialogue with UN mechanisms, in which civil society organisations can participate. An introduction and overview of the system of Special Procedures is available on the UN website HERE.

What would an Independent Expert on SOGI contribute?

An Independent Expert or other special procedure would focus urgent,systematic and comprehensive attention to the breadth of violations committedon grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

An important number of existing Special Procedures mandates have increasingly drawn attention to and responded to abuses of the rights of LGBTI persons. However, there remains a protection gap on these issues within the United Nations system, which has been highlighted by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in his most recent report.

A dedicated mandate would contribute significantly to addressing such gaps, allowing more detailed exploration of the situation of specific populations (e.g: trans populations, bisexual persons, lesbian women, gay men, other persons who face human rights violations based on their actual or perceived SOGI), specific patterns of violations (eg: killings, sexual violence, and other forms of violence in different settings including within families and communities, in health settings, detention settings, discrimination in education, employment, housing, health) and intersectionalities between human rights violations based on SOGI and on other grounds, examine the root causes of such violations and encourage more effective responses by Governments, the UN and others, including through identifying good practices.

A dedicated mandate would be able to report regularly to the Human Rights Council, engage in constructive dialogue with States and other stakeholders, and bring greater clarity to the application of international human rights norms and standards in relation to SOGI.  Collaboration with other mandate holders could consolidate the existing intersectional approach in a more systematic manner.

Is there support for such an initiative?

Almost all States participating in discussions have agreed that no one should face violence or discrimination for any reason.

Numerous joint statements, as well as the two HRC resolutions on SOGI, and votes on references to SOGI in the biennial GA resolutions on extrajudicial executions have shown growing cross-regional support for these issues. The 2014 SOGI resolution passed with a clear majority of the HRC membership and support from within all UN regional groups. Regional bodies[1] have also adopted resolutions and initiatives on SOGI including the creation of a dedicated Rapporteur on the human rights of LGBTI persons in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Civil society organizations from all regions of the world have repeatedly called on the HRC to institutionalize attention to the issues at the UN, for instance, through the creation of a new mechanism. More than 500 NGOs from over 100 countries issued a joint statement in June 2014[2] expressing concern at systemic human rights violations based on SOGI, and calling on the HRC to adopt a resolution to ensure regular reporting, constructive dialogue and sustained, systematic attention to the breadth of human rights violations on these grounds.

ILGA (the World Federation of LGBTI organizations) has resolved to call for the HRC to establish a Special Procedure on SOGI, while supporting continued attention to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.[3]

How could a SOGI mechanism contribute to an intersectional approach?

For some, diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are seen to threaten the existing social order. Violence is then used as a tool to enforce gender roles and binaries, resulting in horrific crimes against people who are perceived as transgressing norms around gender, sex and sexuality. Special Procedures have acknowledged that violations against LGBTI persons are rooted in the policing of such norms, and are compounded by multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

A SOGI mandate could address intersecting human rights concerns, and could contribute to the possibility of developing any initiative on related issues such as bodily autonomy and sexual rights when sufficient political support could be built, for example, through joint statements and/or OHCHR reports. Civil society will also continue to work on existing gaps in relation to sexual rights.

UN Special Procedures regularly issue joint statements, and a SOGI mandate-holder could encourage other Special Procedures to integrate the issues throughout their mandates, undertake initiatives jointly with Rapporteurs mandated to address topics such as violence against women, racism, health or cultural rights to explore root causes, intersectionality and protection gaps, initiate dialogue on a broad range of issues that currently receive little attention (eg the human rights of sex workers), and pave the way for more systematic attention to these issues in future.

Does a focus on SOGI detract attention from other issues?

Addressing human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity is an integral part of our shared commitment to combat all forms of violence and discrimination, including those based on race, religion, age, ability, gender, socio–economic status or other grounds, as well as promoting and protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights, the right to bodily autonomy and all other human rights.

The entire United Nations human rights system is founded on the basis that human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible, while at the same time recognizing that specific patterns of human rights violations – whether they are thematic or concern specific groups – require specific responses. Dedicated focushas brought visibility to particular issues, such as the rights of women, combating racism, the rights of minorities, older persons, human rights defenders, persons with disabilities, migrants, people of African descent, persons with albinism and others. Focused mandates have also helped combat impunity, and encouraged the design and implementation of targeted responses, including to address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Why now?

States and civil society have been working to advance SOGI issues in the international human rights system through a series of joint statements and resolutions for over a decade. Violations on these grounds continue in all regions of the world. The OHCHR has already produced two reports on this theme and has noted the lack of a dedicated international mechanism to address the human rights situation of LGBT and intersex persons.[4] States have similarly noted the need to give “integrated and systematic” attention to the issues.[5]

The time is ripe and there is momentum for the HRC to take the natural next step in systematizing attention to ongoing violations on these grounds through the creation of a specific mandate.

What can I do?

Please join us and many others in urging the UN to give systemic attention to SOGI-related human rights violations, by signing the joint civil statement.

[1]Including the Organization of American States, the Council of Europe, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Asia-Pacific Forum on National Human Rights Institutions.

[2] http://ilga.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/HRC-26-NGO-Joint-Statement-Item-8-General-Debate.pdf

[3] ILGA is a worldwide federation of about 1,200 member organizations from 125 countries campaigning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex rights since 1978. For more information see here. The decision was made on 24 April 2016 at the ILGA Board Meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. ILGA’s Executive Board is composed of 17 members: two elected representatives from each of the six ILGA regions (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America and Oceania), one representative from each of the organizations elected respectively as the Intersex, Women’s, and Trans secretariats and two Secretaries-General elected at ILGA’s World Conference. For more information see here.

[4] A/HRC/29/23, para.76

[5] Joint statement at HRC30, under Item 8, on behalf of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia & Uruguay