Making the case for an Independent Expert at the Human Rights Council

While joint statements are one way of making a case before the Council, the time limit precludes more in-depth engagement. Side events provide this opportunity for a more in-depth engagement. Mid-way through the second week of the Council, a side event on ‘Ending violence against LGBT people? Addressing the protection gap in the UN system’[1], made a more detailed case for why the Independent Expert was so vital for taking forward the struggle of LGBT communities globally.

The event was chaired by Arvind Narrain, ARC International, and the speakers in the event were:

  • Joleen Brown Mataele, Tonga Leiti’s Association
  • Fadi Saleh, Syrian LGBT activist
  • Yahia Zaidi, Mantiqitna Network
  • Sheherezade Kara, Human Rights Consultant
  • John Fisher, Human Rights Watch

Arvind Narrain began by paying a tribute to the victims of the brutal attack on Orlando. He stated that the outrage provoked by the mass shooting of 49 people at a gay night club in Orlando resonated with LGBT communities around the world from Chandigarh, Nellore, Delhi in India to Kampala, Nairobi, Rabat and Tunis in Africa from Mexico city and Bogota in Latin America to Suva, Tonga, Seoul and Bangkok in Asia. While the global media covered the outpouring of support and solidarity from cities around the global north, it did not highlight the important fact that the horror of the Orlando shooting resonated very strongly with LGBT communities in the global south. At this point a slide photo presentation highlighting the moving tributes from LGBT communities from places as diverse as Suva, Kampala, Nellore and Mexico City was played.[2] According to the moderator, the grief and pain of Orlando resonated with LGBT communities in the global south because the sting of discrimination and the pain of violence was something that was a part of the everyday experience of being LGBT. He said that he wanted to explore a bit more of this resonance by asking the panelists who worked in the difficult contexts of Syria, North Africa and Tonga, as well as globally, to share their thoughts on two points:

  1. The forms of violence faced by LGBT persons and whether there is specificity to the violence faced by LGBT persons.
  2. How can the proposal of the LAC 7 to establish an Independent Expert at the Human Rights Council address the endemic violence which is a reality in LGBT lives around the world?

With respect to the first question the panelists responded as follows:

Joleen Brown Mataele, from Tonga Leiti’s Association observed that LGBT people encounter many difficulties coming out in public, speaking out and forming associations and communities. From her personal experience as a transgender woman, Joleen Mataele explained how she was abused by both parents and classmates. In these conditions of loneliness and hardship, it takes a lot of courage to be oneself, as society is hardly accepting.

Fadi Saleh, a Syrian LGBT activist, stated that unlike what media coverage portrays, violence against LGBT people happens not just under ISIS but also in areas controlled by the regime in Syria. There are very specific forms of violence that remain undocumented and un-talked about. They don’t seem to capture the same media attention for there are not on the scale of ISIS’ atrocities nor as spectacular. LGBT people are punished without legal authority, arrested and tortured. Transwomen tend to be the group most targeted, especially by the (Free) Syrian Army. Arbitrary arrests happen frequently: recently, six people were arbitrary arrested based on their looks, and amongst them a trans-woman. Without any connections or money to help them out, some of these people had to spend many days in jail, though they didn’t commit any infractions.

Yahia Zaidi, of Mantiqitna Network, stated that North Africa has also a high rate of violence against LGBT people: “proved” homosexuality, often through the practice of humiliating anal testings, can lead to jail. There are many types of violence: violence in the family sphere, violence condoned by religious figures and violence by the state. Nowadays, the tendency seems to have shifted towards violence from non-states agents particularly focused on gay men and trans-women. For the last two years, LGBT people have endured a new wave of increased violence, by groups of harassers, who also tend to film and publicly spread their violent acts on platforms such as internet.

Sheherezade Kara, Human Rights Consultant, expressed her wish to bring more attention to LBT women. Women suffer from different types of violence: one of the forms it can take is lesbians being submitted to corrective rapes, a subject which has been addressed in the session of the Council. The working group on discrimination against women also showed that LBT women face double discrimination for being, for instance, both women and part of LGBT communities.

John Fisher from Human Rights Watch stressed the importance of doing an homage to LGBT people killed in Orlando, as the event is representative of the sufferings endured by LGBT people in the world.

On the importance of having an UN independent expert to ensure sustained attention to human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity the panelists responded as follows:

The panelists highlighted the importance and the need of having an UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. The establishment of the Independent Expert would be an important contribution as the mandate would be able to engage with States, the civil society, media and raise awareness while enabling better conceptual understanding of SOGI issues. Any systematic violation requires a systematic solution from the UN, and a mechanism would do that.

The activists also strongly contended that from the perspective of the global south, a dedicated mechanism on sexual orientation and gender identity would focus attention on the problems faced by LGBT persons and be of concrete relevance in national level struggles.

The demand for an independent mechanism was really from civil society groups in the global south. An analysis of the joint NGO letter by 628 organisations to the Human Rights Council reveals that the vast majority of organisations which had demanded the creation of such a mechanism, were from Africa, the LAC region and Asia Pacific. Hence the heartfelt need for an UN mechanism really came from these regions.

The contributions of the panelists was summed up by the moderator who stated that the panelists highlighted the dire human rights situation in many regions of the world which included violence by the state, vigilante elements, families and medical establishments.  As such the scale and nature of the violations made a compelling case for urgent action. Being in Geneva, one of the key contributions towards addressing this state of rightlessness would be to establish an Independent Expert who could help take the struggle of LGBT people for a life free of discrimination and violence forward.

The panelists also thanked the LAC 7 for the important initiative to place issues of sexual orientation and gender identity on the human rights agenda of the UN.

A number of states including France, The European Union, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and Colombia spoke after the presentations. In response to a question as to whether the issue of LGBT rights was a western agenda, the delegates from Colombia and Uruguay drew attention to the fact that these issues were issues they confronted within their own national contexts and hence it was a personal matter for them.  As the delegate from Colombia put it, he knew people who had been killed for their sexual orientation. Both Uruguay and Colombia concluded by stating that they felt energized after this meeting and would now go and fight even harder to ensure that the resolution passed.

[1]The side event was organized jointly by Arc International, COC Netherlands, Mantiqitna Network, Tonga Leitis Association. For a perspective on the side event see Sharan Bhavnani, Progression of a Progressive International Stance: ARCs Side Event at the 32nd Session of the Human Rights Council.

[2] This slide presentation can be accessed at