Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the United Nations

This blog post was written for the YCSRR by Youth/LGBT advocate and multimedia storyteller *Samy Nemir Olivares

Some say that sexual orientation and gender identity are sensitive issues. I understand. Like many of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues. But I learned to speak out because lives are at stake, and because it is our duty under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere.”- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the HRC, 2012[1].

The United Nations was established in 1945. Since then, it has played a fundamental role to ensure the advancement and monitoring of human rights and international law, and has been pivotal in the historical progress of reducing extreme poverty and advancing women’s rights. However, it was not until 61 years later that the Human Rights Council (HRC), in 2011, adopted the first resolution 17/19 on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)[2].

The report expressed “grave concern” over violence and discrimination against people based on their SOGI and presented recommendations to states to fulfill these human rights. Despite great opposition, the adoption of Resolution 17/19 paved the way for the first official UN report on the same subject A/HRC/19/41[3]. The resolution’s findings led to a panel discussion at the Council in March 2012[4], becoming the first time in history a UN intergovernmental body had held a formal debate and focus on the human rights violations based on SOGI.

In Sept. 2014, the HRC adopted the resolution A/HRC/19/41 to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of SOGI with recommendations of good practices and ways to eradicate violence and discrimination. As a result of this resolution, an update on this report was recently issued on discrimination and violence against LGBTI people worldwide[5]. The document reveals some progress but it has been “overshadowed” by continuing abuses and violence in all regions of the world, including 1,612 murders in 62 countries between 2008 and 2014. Among its 20 recommendations, it urges governments to take steps to overcome these issues. Recommendations include changing laws to remove same-sex conduct as an offence, prosecuting hate-crimes, and banning “conversion therapies”, involuntary treatments, forced sterilisation, and genital and anal examinations, among others.

Back in 2011, the UN Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS[6] recognized the need to address the rights of men who have sex with men. Also that year, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a resolution condemning discrimination based on SOGI and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) created a Unit on the Rights of LGBTI persons[7].

I am convinced that the struggle to protect and promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons is one of the great neglected human rights challenges of our time.“ – Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014[8].

A side document, the Yogyakarta Principles of 2011[9], represents another historical step forward on these issues and affirms binding international legal standards that states must comply with. In 2013, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay launched a campaign, “Free Equal”[10], to raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic discrimination. In 2012, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon delivered one of the most progressive speeches[11] in the position’s history, advocating and recognising the struggle of LGBTI persons. Further, Ban Ki-moon as well as Kofi Annan have supported LGBTI employees at the UN –by extending benefits to their partners, for example. The central challenge has been conservative states that will not accept any mention of LGBTI people in the Post-2015 agenda and exert pressure to impede progress at all levels of the UN system.

Today, more than 40 countries have repealed discriminatory laws since 1990 and many have taken steps to combat violence and discrimination. To some extent, the world is more safe and inclusive for many LGBTI people –but that is not the case worldwide. Unfortunately, still today, loving someone of the same sex it is a criminal offense in around 77 countries[12]. In five of them consensual same-sex relationships entails a penalty of death by execution. Globally, LGBTI people face pervasive discrimination, violence, persecution, stigma and murder.

Pillay said last year that the UN “has gone from being mostly silent, to openly advocating measures to combat discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons.” “Sexual orientation” and “gender identity” were “rarely uttered” in meetings at the UN during the past 18 years, but after decades of a vague approach, the topic has gained momentum after the debate unfolded in the HRC in Geneva.

Also worth mentioning, the Millennium Development Goal’s (MDGs)[13] did not make any mention of SOGI. This September, the MDGs will be replaced by the SDGs, a global agenda of 17 development goals to which the 193 member states will commit to achieve over the next 15 years. However, the Open Working Group 2014 proposal for the SDGs[14] fails to recognize or make any mention of LGBTI people or discrimination based on SOGI in any of the 169 targets. Goal 5 of “gender equality” and empowerment is strictly interpreted as “women and girls”, excluding the broad spectrum of gender identity and expression such as transgender, gender non-conforming, intersexual and queer people –all groups which face targeted violence and discrimination.

It is time that LGBTI people are recognized as human beings whose human rights are being systematically violated, and this must happen now. Or, are we waiting for 2030? If so, that is simply not a ‘sustainable’ plan. Omission of action is also a form of violence. LGBTI lives cannot ‘sustain’ one day more of hatred and discrimination.

If you are interested in more information, The International Commission of Jurists has created a database containing all UN references to violations experienced by LGBTI individuals[15].

[1] http://www.un.org/press/en/2012/sgsm14145.doc.htm

[2] http://arc-international.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/HRC-Res-17-19.pdf

[3] http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Discrimination/A.HRC.19.41_English.pdf

[4] http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Discrimination/LGBT/SummaryHRC19Panel.pdf

[5] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session29/Pages/ListReports.aspx

[6] http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/sub_landing/files/20110610_UN_A-RES-65-277_en.pdf

[7] http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/lgtbi/links/

[8] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14654&LangID=E

[9] http://www.yogyakartaprinciples.org/

[10] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/FreeAndEqualCampaign.aspx

[11] http://www.un.org/sg/statements/index.asp?nid=6504

[12] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/LGBT.aspx

[13] http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

[14] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/focussdgs.html

[15] http://www.icj.org/sogi-un-database/

* Samy Nemir Olivares is a Master’s student in International Affairs at The New School in New York, focusing on gender. He is a journalist, photojournalist and documentarian, with a focus on human rights, gender and race issues, culture and style. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Metro and other magazines. He also interned and worked at various newspaper, TV and radio stations in Puerto Rico.

He has been involved with International Planned Parenthood Federation since he was 13 years old as a sexual and reproductive rights advocate, in which was a founding member of the IPPF Youth Network for Latin America. He served as Youth Representative and Secretary at the Puerto Rico’s IPPF member association “Profamilia”. Currently, he is a Youth/LGBT advocate at the UN group “World We Want 2015” and has served as youth speaker for IPPF and PPFA. Back in the island, he earned a BA in journalism, public relations and advertising from the University of Puerto Rico.

Follow him on Twitter @Samynemir.

LGBT Flag Map licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to “DrRandomFactor” and can be found here.