A Showdown on LGBT rights in Geneva

April 4, 2012|Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow

Recently in Geneva, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held the UN’s first-ever formal discussion on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people. While the simple act of getting this issue onto the agenda of the world’s most prominent human rights body represents a victory for the LGBT rights movement, the manner in which the topic was framed—a panel discussion on “ending violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity”—indicates how much work is ahead. Far from framing this as a discussion of “gay rights as human rights” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in her Human Rights Day speech in Geneva, a number of countries (primarily in the Middle East and Africa) rejected outright a discussion of LGBT rights at the HRC and staged a walk-out.


The panel discussion (sponsored by South Africa and Brazil) was moderated by the Ambassador of South Africa and featured panelists from Brazil, Pakistan, Sweden, and the United States. National human rights institutions and civil society representatives also had the opportunity to speak and gave powerful statements.


As delegates were walking out of the HRC, the discussion commenced with a video message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which he boldly stated that an attack against LGBT individuals is an attack on the universal values of the United Nations. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay presented the UN’s groundbreaking study, which documents discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against LGBT people around the world. She urged countries to ensure that their laws protect their LGBT citizens and pushed for nations to decriminalize homosexuality, which is a crime punishable by death in some countries. According to Pillay, 76 countries retain laws that either criminalize same-sex relationships between consenting adults or are used to otherwise prosecute LGBT persons.

While LGBT rights organizations largely welcomed the panel as a first step in what promises to be a long battle for the universality of rights, the representative from Pakistan, who at this point had returned to the room, asserted on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), “We expect that this panel will be the last of its kind in the context of the Human Rights Council.” In the view of the OIC, “licentious behavior promoted under the so-called concept of sexual orientation” is against religious dogma and bringing the issue of sexual orientation into the realm of human rights will lead to “social normalization and legitimization of pedophilia.” Mauritania, on behalf of the Arab Group, made similar remarks, citing religious and cultural justifications, and Senegal on behalf of “most members of the African Group” referred to the importance of preserving social and cultural norms (i.e. homophobia) at the regional level.


Such statements were inevitable and were counterbalanced by strong positive statements by the panelists, the European Union, the U.S., Argentina (on behalf of Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay), and even Cuba. In response to the frequent and unyielding claims of cultural and religious considerations, these countries emphasized the powerful counter-argument that this is not about creating new rights, but a matter of ensuring that all human rights can be enjoyed by all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This first panel discussion revealed just how deep the fault lines remain on this issue and as advocates regroup, they will likely consider a number of options to advance the issue. At this early point, many of these are aspirational, but further action on LGBT rights could include the creation of a Special Rapporteur to report on discrimination faced by LGBT individuals and make country visits; a follow up UN report with a more comprehensive analysis of the human rights challenges facing LGBT and intersex persons; and an experts seminar, which could provide the opportunity to engage on sensitive issues in a less politicized environment.


The highly politicized environment surrounding the panel discussion—which though formal does not directly result in any further action—underscores how high the stakes are on LGBT rights at the UN. Given the level of controversy this issue provokes in Western democracies, including the U.S., it is remarkable and commendable that the Secretary-General, High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a number of HRC Member States have taken on LGBT rights knowing that they would surely face direct opposition from groups on the basis of cultural and traditional values.

Labels: Advocacy

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