UN Pushes “Free and Equal”

July 24, 2013|By Ryan Kaminski, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in partnership with the Purpose Foundation, is set to launch a major international public education campaign on July 26, designed to increase global awareness related to sexual orientation and gender identity. According to a release, Free and Equal “will raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination, and encourage greater respect for the rights of LGBT people.”

The campaign builds upon the UN’s significant pivot to addressing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals in recent years. In June 2011, for example, the UN Human Rights Council passed the UN’s first-ever resolution on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and indemnity, tasking the OHCHR for completing a groundbreaking comprehensive study on the topic. The OHCHR has also worked with civil society groups to facilitate cross-regional dialogues concerning LGBT rights stretching from Nepal to Brazil. The talks concluded in a major conference in Oslo, Norway where 200 participants from 84 countries endorsed a global push for LGBT human rights in April 2013. In the background, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has also convened meetings to examine the issue of LGBT bullying, a practice UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has boldly labeled a “grave violation” of human rights. During the latest session of the UN Human Rights Council, 33 countries, including the United States, agreed to a joint statement that cited the need for a “relevant mechanism” to address human rights violations affecting the LGBT community. Many have interpreted this as potentially calling for the establishment of a new UN special rapporteur or independent expert, who visits countries to assess potential rights violations and offer capacity-building advice where needed.

On the other hand, the launch of the Free and Equal campaign comes amid serious challenges regarding sexual orientation and gender identity around the world. Nearly 80 countries continue to criminalize consensual LGBT same-sex relationships, and some states have adopted harsh laws restricting the ability for civil society groups to advocate on behalf of LGBT rights. A November 2011 report by the OHCHR also concluded, “Hate-motivated violence against LGBT people, including physical assault, sexual violence, and targeted killings, has been recorded in all regions.” In July 2013, this became especially clear when gay Cameroonian LGBT activist and journalist, Eric Lembembe, was murdered in what many suspect was a crime motivated by his activism. Several UN agencies immediately condemned the killing, urging Cameroon’s government to fully investigate the incident.

The Free and Equal campaign dovetails the recent release of a short OHCHR online video, The Riddle, which introduces human rights challenges facing LGBT individuals around the world.  The clip was been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube, and was also presented to participants of the 2013 UNA-USA Global Classrooms International Model UN Conference in New  York during a simulation of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, which focused on preventing violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Free and Equal campaign is set to be launched during an event that will feature UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Justice Edwin Cameron of the South Africa Constitutional Court. Many hope the campaign could help lay the groundwork for a follow-up resolution related to sexual orientation and gender identity when the UN Human Rights Council convenes for its 24th session in September.

Labels: Advocacy

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