The United Nations and the Advancement of LGBT Rights

KAOS GL Meeting, Ankara, Turkey, May 17-21, 2006

About the United Nations:

The United Nations is an international body, composed of 191 Member States.  Often these States participate to defend their own political interests, rather that to advance a shared commitment to human rights, which can make it very difficult to obtain support for controversial issues such as the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Nonetheless, the United Nations remains the main tool we have for developing international recognition of our right to equality.  The United Nations has a number of different bodies and mechanisms, developed both through its own Charter, and through international treaties which States sign on to and agree to be bound by.  The main human rights mechanisms of the UN will be discussed in this presentation.

There are a number of ways in which lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people can seek to engage with the United Nations.  These are further explored below.

International Standard-setting:

One of the roles of the United Nations human rights bodies is to set standards regarding the rights of different groups and the conduct that will be expected of members of the international community.

In relation to many other areas of discrimination, the United Nations maintains explicit mechanisms to address human rights abuses.  For example, there is a Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and an International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, which are enforced through treaty bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  There have been three World Conferences against Racism and four World Conferences on Women.  Special Rapporteurs (UN experts) are mandated to monitor and take action to address human rights abuses in these areas.

None of these mechanisms exist to protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people from human rights abuses.  “Sexual orientation” is not explicitly recognized as a ground in any UN human rights document.  There is no Convention, Committee or Special Rapporteur explicitly charged with the protection of LGBT human rights.

As a result, some States do not even recognize abuses directed against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people as matters of human rights.  It is therefore important that the UN human rights bodies explicitly adopt a resolution or similar statement to send the clear message to the international community that LGBT rights are human rights.

The Brazilian resolution:

The main UN human rights body has been the UN Commission on Human Rights.  In 2003, the State of Brazil presented a resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights to affirm rights based on sexual orientation.  A motion brought by Pakistan to remove the resolution from the Commission agenda altogether was narrowly defeated by a vote of 24-22, with 6 States abstaining.  Ultimately, the Commission voted to defer consideration of the resolution until 2004.

2004 saw the biggest engagement ever of LGBT groups in the Commission on Human Rights.  However, Brazil had also received enormous pressure from States opposed to the resolution, including the Vatican and the Organization of Islamic Conferences.  As a result, Brazil deferred the resolution for another year, and in 2005 it officially lapsed from the Commission agenda.

One positive development in 2005 was that New Zealand made a statement in favour of sexual orientation and human rights, which was supported by 32 States from 4 of the 5 UN regions.  Although there has still not been a formal vote on the matter, many States are become increasingly aware of the importance of our issues and the work of LGBT groups and our allies to obtain official recognition continues.

As a result of major reform taking place at the UN, the Commission on Human Rights has now been replaced by a new body, called the Human Rights Council, which has greater status within the UN system, and which will meet for the first time in June 2006.

Obtaining status for LGBT groups before the UN:

Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seek consultative status with the UN.  This allows them to attend UN meetings, organize panels and other events, and sometimes make oral and written interventions.  This status is often called “ECOSOC Status”, because it is granted by the UN’s 53-member Economic and Social Council (“ECOSOC”).  In practice, this responsibility is delegated to the 19-member NGO Committee.

This past year, 5 NGOs have applied for ECOSOC status:

  • ILGA
  • LBL (the Danish National Association for Gays and Lesbians)
  • ILGA-Europe
  • LSVD (the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany)
  • CG LQ (the Coalition Gaie et Lesbienne du Québec)

However, the ECOSOC NGO Committee has dismissed the applications of ILGA, LBL, ILGA-Europe and LSVD (and the application of CGLQ has not yet been decided).  This effectively means that LGBT groups do not even have the opportunity to present our concerns on our own behalf.

The decisions of the NGO Committee will be reviewed at a full ECOSOC meeting in Geneva in July 2006, and it will be important to lobby all States on the ECOSOC (including Turkey) to overturn the rejections of LGBT organizations.

The role of Turkey:

Turkey has a key role to play.  It is both a member of the Organization of Islamic Conferences and is seeking membership in the European Union.  As a result, it is in a crucial position to bridge the gap between East and West that often divides State discussions at the international level.

Turkey did not join the New Zealand statement at the 2005 Commission on Human Rights, but did support a similar statement made by the European Union.  It is on the NGO Committee that reviewed the applications by LGBT groups, but abstained on all the critical votes.

Turkey is also a member of the ECOSOC that will meet in July to review the rejection of LGBT groups.  As a result, it will be important for international organizations to collaborate with organizations like Kaos GL in Turkey to strengthen Turkey’s support for our issues.

Holding Governments accountable for human rights abuses:

Another way in which LGBT groups and individuals can participate in international processes is to hold governments accountable for human rights abuses happening within their own country.  There are a number of ways in which this can be done:

  • Treaty bodies: When States sign international treaties, they agree to be bound by the terms, and are obliges to submit periodic reports to the relevant Committee (or “treaty body”) on their implementation of the treaty obligations.  NGOs also have the opportunity to submit information to the relevant treaty body, and so can draw awareness to violations of the rights of LGBT people;
  • Individual complaint procedure: In the case of certain treaties, an individual may complain to the relevant treaty body about alleged violations of their rights by a State party.  Generally, the State must have accepted the competence of the Committee to receive individual complaints by ratifying an Optional Protocol or through either an opt-in or opt-out mechanism provided in the treaty itself.  For example, in a case called Toonen v. Australia, an individual complained that laws criminalizing homosexuality in the State of Tasmania violated Australia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The Human Rights Committee agreed, and its decision led to the repeal of the laws criminalising homosexuality.
  • Special Procedures: Special Procedures are UN experts who are charged with investigating and reporting on human rights violations that fall within their mandate.  For example, there are Special Rapporteurs on Violence against Women, Racism, Human Rights Defenders, Torture, Freedom of Expression, Extrajudicial Executions etc.  A number of Special Rapporteurs have played a crucial role in investigating and drawing international attention to violations of the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.  A full list of Special Procedures can be found at:
  • Universal Periodic Review: as a result of the recent UN reform, the newly-created Human Rights Council will review the human rights record of every UN State in a process called the Universal Periodic Review. Although the details have not yet been developed, this should afford a further opportunity to bring LGBT human rights concerns to the attention of the international community.

It is therefore a time of great challenge and great opportunity, and we look forward to working with KAOS GL to support a progressive role for Turkey and advance LGBT issues within the international agenda.