UN PROGRESS ON SEXUAL ORIENTATION ISSUES: A LONG ROAD STILL AHEAD
By René Wadlow
On the last day of the current session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva, September 26, 2014, the Council approved a resolution condemning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity stating:
“Expressing grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Welcoming positive developments at the international, regional and national levels in the fight against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender equality.”
This is, for the Human Rights Council, a strong resolution on which to build a wave of support for respect of gender equality and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in the current UN terminology. There had been an earlier resolution of the Council in June 2011, but it was weaker and with fewer countries voting in favor.
The resolution was hotly discussed by the government representatives in private − the reason why the vote came up only on the last day. The opponents made great efforts, offering complicated procedural moves and proposing seven meaningless amendments each of which required a vote, in the hope that time would run out and the session would close on time so the members could have a last drink together in the restaurant on the top floor of the Palais des Nations. However, the resolution moved forward.
There are 47 Member States in the Council elected within regional groups. Many more States attend the session as Observer States, with the right to speak but not vote. Some Observer States are there because they are interested in human rights; most are there to reply, if they are attacked, especially by representatives of nongovernmental organizations in consultative status, such as the Association of World Citizens.
The vote was 25 in favor, 14 against, 7 abstentions, and the representative of the African State of Benin left the room so he would not have to vote at all. It is important to analyze the composition of the vote to see allies to strengthen, opponents to change, and abstentions to act.
Interestingly, the lead on the resolution was taken by South American countries which have a large Roman Catholic population. In the past Latin American countries were hostile or uninterested, a reflection of Catholic sexual policy. Now with a new Pope from Latin America and his less condemning attitude, Latin American countries could play an active, positive role. Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay took the lead, and the other Latin American members voted for: Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Western Europe voted for, and more surprisingly, four Asian States: Japan, Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam.
Opposition came from African States: Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, joined by North African and Middle East States: Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Asian States with a large Muslim population: Indonesia, Maldives, and Pakistan. The Russian Federation also voted no, a reflection of the current policy there, especially voiced by its President.
Among the States which abstained are two key Asian States where efforts must be made systematically for change: China and India. Four African States also abstained, not giving into strong pressure to have a unified African bloc: Burkina Faso, Congo, Namibia, and Sierra Leone, and as mentioned, Benin left the room so as not to vote at all. Since individual African States have little influence, they try to vote together as a bloc which gives them some power. That four African States were willing to leave the negative bloc is an important sign of progress, but they are hardly in the “yes” group as yet.
The resolution also calls for an update on a 2012 study on discrimination based on sexual orientation. The updated study means that the issue will be automatically on the 2015 Human Rights Council agenda.
Nongovernmental work must start now to influence governments for the 2015 sessions. To the extent possible, articles in the press in India and China would be useful. China, India and Russia have influence in the Human Rights Council, both because of the size of the States but also the good quality of their representatives who are often very skillful in tactical techniques to delay action. The African States have prejudices but no real ideological position, and so some progress may be made there. The Islamic States will be the most difficult to swing given the power of conservative religious leaders in many Muslim countries. Latin American governments should be thanked or their efforts, especially as there could be a conservative Catholic backlash in some countries once people learn of their governments’ initiatives. It must be said that the media in most countries do not focus on the resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council. Thus when a conservative, activist minority learns about the resolution, they may mobilize to change the policy of the Latin American States.
There is still a long road ahead for real respect for sexual orientation efforts. As most UN human rights resolutions, the emphasis is put on non-discrimination and anti-violence. I think that the policy of the Association of World Citizens must stress a positive approach of respect for each individual and creating a society in which each person can fulfill potentials.
Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.