Since February, security forces have arrested at least 24 people in Cameroon for alleged same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity. In Uzbekistan, videos showing the abuse, humiliation and beatings of gay men have been circulated around social media groups. In Poland, the government’s ongoing campaign against LGBTI+ people continues, with proposed legal changes to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children.
The continuing persecution of LGBTI+ people is tragically under-acknowledged by the multilateral system. A failure to use the United Nations as a platform to raise these issues is a failure to understand one of its core purposes. There are no rights explicitly related to sexuality or gender identity codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of the declaration accounts for factors such as language, religion and nationality, but relegates sexual and gender identity to “other status.”
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Those who oppose LGBTI+ rights still have room to use the excuse that such rights are not fundamental, not universal or are beholden to regional and local interpretation.
Free & Equal, the UN’s flagship campaign for promoting LGBTI+ rights, is a welcome step for the cause, using influential artists and activists as champions. Likewise, the 2017 standards of conduct for businesses on tackling discrimination against LGBTI+ people provides more resources for countering discrimination at the organizational level. The appointment of Victor Madrigal-Borloz as the UN’s independent expert on these issues was also a commendable move, in that it made LGBTI+ rights somebody’s job.
While they do show support, none of these steps do anything to modernize the fundamental architecture of the UN system. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a series of constitutional amendments to introduce a formal ban on same-sex marriage, showing that LGBTI+ hate is entrenched even in permanent member states of the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful branch. Campaigns and guidance may change some behavior, but they do not embed LGBTI+ rights into the UN’s cornerstone principles and agreements, meaning these rights still lack basic parity of esteem with other human rights.
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission (OHCHR) argues that a specific set of LGBTI+ rights is unnecessary. Yet their absence leaves space for oppressive states to claim that they are less important or more fundamental than other rights. A campaign to introduce and ratify a set of specific rights safeguarding all aspects of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sexual characteristics should be a priority for all countries. Doing so would send a strong message of solidarity to those LGBTI+ people living in repressive societies.
The Yogyakarta Principles offer a ready-made framework for codifying rules protecting sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) into universal rights frameworks. A coalition of states publicly declaring its support for the principles would pile on the pressure at the UN, as would pushing for General Assembly votes for their adoption.
There are currently 10 UN human rights treaty bodies, overseeing the protection of rights in areas including disability and migrant status. There is no treaty body safeguarding the rights of LGBTI+ people. Calls for the introduction and ratification of a new treaty providing safeguards for sexuality and gender identity would send a powerful message of support throughout the multilateral system.
Alongside multilateral action, countries should be stepping up their game at the national level. Having robust policies on support for LGBTI+ rights would bolster countries’ credibility and authority when pushing for reform at the UN level. For instance, Germany recently announced comprehensive new measures for the promotion of LGBTI+ rights abroad.
Other states would do well to follow suit, providing comprehensive diplomatic training on LGBTI+ issues so that in-country staff can better understand the challenges and potential remedies around LGBTI+ persecution. Shoring up embassies’ commitment to offer support and protection for those facing persecution will also send a strong message to host governments that LGBTI+ discrimination will not be tolerated anywhere.
Those countries with strong track records of support for LGBTI+ rights should also be working harder through existing UN mechanisms. More action should be taken through existing UN fora. The UN General Assembly’s Third Committee and Human Rights Council sessions should be regular venues for raising these issues.
Here, sustained diplomatic and reputational pressure should be applied to countries that continue to persecute people based on their sexuality and/or gender identity at an institutional level. Using these venues to declare the many and varied forms of LGBTI+ persecution as a global crisis would demonstrate solidarity to those facing persecution and send a strong message of resolve to those perpetrating it.
The resistance of certain states to particular rights is not a reason to believe that some types of discrimination are unavoidable. It is imperative to speak louder. More liberal countries that advocate for these rights should use every avenue to translate their vocal support into action, leading to tangible and long-lasting reforms at the UN and state levels. The current lackluster approach is a shame to all countries that purport to support equality for LGBTI+ people. They must do better.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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