LGBT rights at the United Nations
Discussions of LGBT rights at the United Nations have included resolutions and joint statements in the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), attention by the expert led human rights mechanisms, such as the United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, as well as by the UN Agencies.
Since its founding in 1945, the United Nations political bodies had not discussed LGBT rights (regarding equality regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) until September 1995, when sexual orientation became a topic of debate in the negotiations on the Draft of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, at the 4th World Conference on Women. While the inclusion of the language on "sexual orientation" was eventually dropped from the text, it was the first time governments took a public and explicit stance for or against the inclusion and recognition of sexual orientation as part of women's right to control their sexuality. Additionally, at the Beijing Conference, Beverley Palesa Ditsie became the first openly lesbian person to address the United Nations regarding LGBT issues, calling for States to adopt resolutions that recognized sexual diversity.
In April 2003, Brazil presented a resolution prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, however in the ensuing debates the Commission voted to postpone discussions on the resolution until 2004.
In December 2006, the discussions expanded to include gender identity, when Norway presented a joint statement on human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity at the Commission on Human Rights on behalf of 54 states. This was followed by a joint statement presented at the General Assembly by Argentina on behalf of 66 states in December 2008. The 2008 statement in support of LGBT rights in the General Assembly prompted a statement backed by the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in opposition to LGBT rights. Both statements remain open for signature, and neither has been officially adopted by the General Assembly.
On June 17, 2011, South Africa led a resolution at the UNHRC requesting that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights draft a report "documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity" to follow up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. The resolution passed with 23 votes in favour to 19 against, with 3 abstentions. It was the first such resolution and was hailed as "historic".
The report, which came out in December 2011, documented violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including hate crimes, criminalization of homosexuality, and discrimination. High Commissioner Navi Pillay called for equitable ages of consent; comprehensive laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation; prompt investigation and recording of hate crime incidents; the repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality; and other measures to ensure the protection of the rights of LGBT persons. The text of the report from the UNHRC is dated on 17 November 2011.
Separately, it was announced in July 2014 that the United Nations (as an employer) would extend equal benefits to its employees who have entered into same-sex unions in jurisdictions where they are legal.
In September 2014, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay led on a follow up resolution at the UNHRC. This second resolution on "human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity" passed with an increased vote margin (25 to 14, 7 abstentions), reflecting the trend for increased support by member states to address these issues at the international level. It requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to update the 2011 report ‘with a view to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination, in application of existing international human rights law and standards’. The update was presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2015.
In 2016, the UNHRC passed a resolution to appoint an "independent expert" to find the causes of violence and discrimination against people due to their gender identity and sexual orientation, and discuss with governments about how to protect those people. The milestone resolution has been seen as the UN's "most overt expression of gay rights as human rights".
Also in 2016, the UN Security Council condemned the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting; this statement marked the first time the U.N. Security Council used language recognizing violence targeting the LGBT community.
Same-sex relationships are currently illegal in 76 countries and punishable by death in seven. In the 1980s, early United Nations reports on the HIV/AIDS pandemic made some reference to homosexuality, and the 1986 Human Freedom Index did include a specific question, in judging the human rights record of each nation, with regards to the existence of criminal laws against homosexuality.
In its 1994 decision in Toonen v. Australia, the UN Human Rights Committee —which is responsible for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—declared that laws criminalizing consensual same sex relations between adults are in violation of international human rights law.
In 2003, Brazil tabled a resolution (see Brazilian Resolution) at the former UN Commission on Human Rights, stressing that human rights apply to all human beings regardless of sexual orientation. The resolution was indefinitely deferred.
Since 2008, the 34 member countries of the Organization of American States have unanimously approved a series of resolutions affirming that human rights protections extend to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Since 2000, the UN General Assembly has included a reference to sexual orientation in its biennial resolutions on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, as did the former Commission on Human Rights. The latter had also addressed the use of the death penalty for sexual relations between consenting adults in its annual resolutions on the death penalty between 2002 and 2005. In recent years the General Assembly resolution on executions also covered gender identity as a ground for protection.
A series of joint statements on sexual orientation and gender identity delivered by UN Member States at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council between 2006 and 2011, provides evidence of increasing support for the issues among UN Member States.
Following meetings between Louis George Tin and French Minister of Human Rights and Foreign Affairs Rama Yade in early 2008, Yade announced that she would appeal at the UN for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality; the appeal was quickly taken up as an international concern. Co-sponsored by France (which then held the rotating presidency of the EU) and the Netherlands on behalf of the EU, the declaration had been intended as a resolution; it was decided to use the format of a declaration of a limited group of states because there was not enough support for the adoption of an official resolution by the General Assembly as a whole. The declaration was read out into the General Assembly Record by Ambassador Jorge Argüello of Argentina on 18 December 2008, and was the first declaration concerning gay rights read in the General Assembly.
The statement includes a condemnation of violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization, and prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity that undermine personal integrity and dignity. It also includes condemnation of killings and executions, torture, arbitrary arrest, and deprivation of economic, social, and cultural rights on those grounds. The statement asserts: "we recall the statement in 2006 before the Human Rights Council by fifty four countries requesting the President of the Council to provide an opportunity, at an appropriate future session of the Council, for discussing these violations". Additionally, it says "we commend the attention paid to those issues by special procedures of the Human Rights Council and treaty bodies and encourage them to continue to integrate consideration of human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity within their relevant mandate", indicating the Yogyakarta Principles, which provide definitions in detail on sexual orientation and on gender identity as a document on international human rights law.
Several speakers addressing a conference on the declaration noted that in many countries laws against homosexuality stemmed as much from the British colonial past as from alleged religious or tradition reasons.
Voicing France's support for the draft declaration, Rama Yade asked: "How can we tolerate the fact that people are stoned, hanged, decapitated and tortured only because of their sexual orientation?"
This was history in the making… Securing this statement at the UN is the result of an inspiring collective global effort by many LGBT and human rights organisations. Our collaboration, unity and solidarity have won us this success. As well as IDAHO, I pay tribute to the contribution and lobbying of Amnesty International; ARC International; Center for Women's Global Leadership; COC Netherlands; Global Rights; Human Rights Watch; International Committee for IDAHO (the International Day Against Homophobia); International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC); International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA); International Service for Human Rights; Pan Africa ILGA; and Public Services International.
Among the first to voice opposition for the declaration, in early December 2008, was the Holy See's Permanent Observer at the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who claimed that the declaration could be used to force countries to recognise same-sex marriage: "If adopted, they would create new and implacable discriminations. For example, states which do not recognise same-sex unions as 'matrimony' will be pilloried and made an object of pressure."
A key part of the Vatican opposition to the draft Declaration relates to the concept of gender identity. In a statement on 19 December, Archbishop Migliore noted: "In particular, the categories 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity', used in the text, find no recognition or clear and agreed definition in international law. If they had to be taken into consideration in the proclaiming and implementing of fundamental rights, these would create serious uncertainty in the law as well as undermine the ability of States to enter into and enforce new and existing human rights conventions and standards."
However, Archbishop Migliore also made clear the Vatican's opposition to legal discrimination against homosexuals: "The Holy See continues to advocate that every sign of unjust discrimination towards homosexual persons should be avoided and urges States to do away with criminal penalties against them."
In an editorial response, the Italian newspaper La Stampa called the Vatican's reasoning "grotesque", claiming that the Vatican feared a "chain reaction in favour of legally recognised homosexual unions in countries, like Italy, where there is currently no legislation."
The United States, citing conflicts with US law, originally opposed the adoption of the nonbinding measure, as did Russia, China, the Holy See, and members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission issued a statement saying that the draft declaration "challenges existing human rights norms." The Obama administration changed the US position to support the measure in February 2009.
An alternative statement, supported by 57 member nations, was read by the Syrian representative in the General Assembly. The statement, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, rejected the idea that sexual orientation is a matter of genetic coding and claimed that the declaration threatened to undermine the international framework of human rights, adding that the statement "delves into matters which fall essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states" and could lead to "the social normalization, and possibly the legitimization, of many deplorable acts including paedophilia". The Organization failed in a related attempt to delete the phrase "sexual orientation" from a Swedish-backed formal resolution condemning summary executions, although recently the phrase was removed with 79 votes to 70, and then subsequently restored by a vote of 93 to 55.
57 UN member nations had initially co-sponsored the opposing statement in 2008:
Some of these countries later switched their position to support the original resolution backing LGBT rights in 2011, leaving 54 countries as continued sponsors of the statement opposing LGBT rights. The countries which removed themselves as co-sponsors of the statement opposing LGBT who all subsequently switched to sponsoring the statement supporting LGBT rights are specifically noted below.
UN Human Rights Council resolutions and discussion
A resolution submitted by South Africa requesting a study on discrimination and sexual orientation (A/HRC/17/19) passed, 23 to 19, with 3 abstentions, in the UNHRC on June 17, 2011. This is the first time that any United Nations body approved a resolution affirming the rights of LGBT people. The resolution called on the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to draw up the first UN report "documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity". The votes on this resolution were as follows:
Asian States (13)
The High Commissioner's report, released December 2011, found that violence against LGBT persons remains common, and confirmed that "Seventy-six countries retain laws that are used to criminalize people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity" (para. 40), and that "In at least five countries the death penalty may be applied to those found guilty of offences relating to consensual, adult homosexual conduct" (para. 45).
The High Commissioner's report led to a panel discussion by the Human Rights Council in March 2012. The divided nature of the UN, and the Council members in particular, was again evident. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation as "a monumental tragedy for those affected and a stain on the collective consciousness" (para. 3), and many others voiced similar concerns. However, "A number of states had signaled their opposition to any discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity by leaving the Council chamber at the start of the meeting", and "A number voiced their opposition on cultural or religious grounds, or argued that sexual orientation and gender identity were new concepts that lay outside the framework of international human rights law" (para. 11)
The UNHRC adopted a second resolution related to sexual orientation and gender identity on September 26, 2014. Among other things, the resolution calls a report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on best practices for combating discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It passed by a vote of 25 to 14, marking the first time the UNHRC adopted a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity with the majority of its members. The second resolution voting was as follows:
Asian States (13)
In 2016, the UNHRC passed a resolution to appoint an "independent expert" to find the causes of violence and discrimination against people due to their gender identity and sexual orientation, and discuss with governments about how to protect those people.
Treatment of UN staff
In July 2014, it was announced that the United Nations (as an employer) would extend equal benefits to its employees who have entered into same-sex unions in jurisdictions where they are legal. Under the new policy, staff who have married a same-sex spouse in a jurisdiction will receive the same benefits and recognition as those in heterosexual marriages, regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legal in their country of citizenship.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon supported a move towards greater respect for gay rights. He stated: "Human rights are at the core of the mission of the United Nations. I am proud to stand for greater equality for all staff, and I call on all members of our UN family to unite in rejecting homophobia as discrimination that can never be tolerated at our workplace."
UN agencies and entities
Agencies and entities in the UN system have increasingly addressed human rights issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in recent years. An early and important milestone was passed in 1994 when the World Health Organisation clarified that homosexuality was neither a disorder nor a disease when it removed sexual orientation from the International Classification of Diseases.
Since then other UN entities have made efforts to integrate issues concerning LGBTI persons into their work, including the OHCHR, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). For example, in 2013 the ILO issued the results of a pilot research on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2014, UNDP released a discussion paper on transgender health and human rights, and UNICEF published an issues paper on eliminating discrimination against children and parents based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
The OHCHR has dedicated efforts to produce an awareness-raising campaign, “Free & Equal”, and related materials, such as fact sheets and infographics, relating to the human rights of LGBTI persons.
In 2014, the OHCHR, UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UN Women, ILO, UNESCO, WHO, the World Bank and UNAIDS issued a joint report providing a snapshot of the work of UN bodies in combating discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and related work in support of LGBTI communities around the world, together with a contact list of focal points in each UN entity and links and references to documents, reports and other materials that can be consulted for further information.
In 2015, the ILO, OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNODC, UN Women, WFP and WHO issued a joint statement calling on States to act urgently to end violence and discrimination against LGBTI adults, adolescents and children.
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