LGBTI People Caught in UN Clash between Universal Rights and ‘Traditional’ Values

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The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people remains one of the most controversial issues on the global human rights agenda, with vehement advocates on both sides and a sizable conflicted group in between. Regrettably, LGBTI people have become victims of an ongoing crisis within global institutions regarding the intersection of universal human rights and cultural or “traditional” values.

This issue recently came up again at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in June, when the council passed a contentious resolution put forward by Egypt on “the protection of the family.” The resolution, which calls the family “the natural fundamental group unit of society and entitled to protection by society and the State,” appears innocent enough, but it is clearly meant to bolster movements against LGBTI rights as well as the rights of women.

While this resolution has a number of troubling implications, including for the role of women in the family, its failure to incorporate language that allows for diversity in how a family is defined makes it particularly dangerous for progress on equal rights for LGBTI people. Its unfortunate passage is another reminder that the universality of human rights continues to be undermined by the governments of countries such as Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, and Pakistan, which have sought to marginalize and in many cases dehumanize people whose gender identity or sexual orientation fall outside of a certain narrow view of what is normal or acceptable.

In June 2011, the UNHRC’s passage of the momentous sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) resolution, which called for a report on how discriminatory laws and violence affect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, appeared to indicate that the United Nations was finally making progress in recognizing the human rights of LGBTI people. The resolution was especially noteworthy because it was not sponsored by a European or American country but by South Africa, a member from a region where many states are notoriously intolerant of homosexuality and gender nonconforming status. While South Africa’s domestic legislation is quite progressive in recognizing the rights of LGBTI people, including legalized same-sex marriage, the country  continues to suffer from discrimination and significant homophobic and transphobic violence in practice.

The text of the resolution wasn’t groundbreaking; LGBTI people and their allies would say it does not go far enough. However, in the current atmosphere, the mere recognition that LGBTI people are deserving of the most basic of human dignities was welcome. At the time, the resolution gave advocates cause to hope that this was at least a step in the right direction.

In the years since, the UNHRC has failed to reinforce the sentiments of this resolution or take any follow-up steps, such as investigating and implementing the recommendations from the report. More worrying still, the UNHRC now appears to be moving in the wrong direction. South Africa, despite its admirable earlier effort, has given various excuses for not sponsoring a follow-on resolution. Meanwhile, restrictive anti-LGBTI legislation proliferates throughout Africa and Eurasia, indicating that the tide is clearly moving against LGBTI equality in much of the world outside Europe and the Americas. In fact, progress in the latter regions has been used to sow fear by opponents of equality and nondiscrimination elsewhere. Some “traditional” views, while widely shared, are cynically exploited by governments that seek popular support and are wary of scrutiny of their domestic human rights records by international bodies.

The most recent UNHRC resolution on the “protection of the family,” as well as a controversial Russia-sponsored resolution on “traditional values of humankind,” are illustrative of efforts that have been consistently advanced by a handful of governments at the UNHRC and in domestic legislation. The two resolutions, while containing seemingly benign language, reject the universality of human rights and advance the idea that certain traditions and family structures take precedence. It is not hard to see how this view affects vulnerable and systematically marginalized groups such as women and LGBTI people. Russia has stated that it will reintroduce the “traditional values” resolution in the upcoming September session.

The sponsors of these resolutions insist that they are not meant to discriminate against any particular group, yet in the debate about the “protection of the family” resolution, Egypt and other cosponsors opposed amended language that would have acknowledged diversity in what constitutes a family. Sadly, the vote on the “protection of the family” resolution was hardly close. It was adopted with 26 votes in favor, 14 against, and 6 abstentions, with one state not voting.

While the picture might look discouraging, the news from the United Nations is not all bad. The UNHRC did vote down an amendment proposed by Saudi Arabia to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, and a new SOGI resolution may be on the horizon with a new sponsor, possibly Argentina. In addition, the outgoing UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has been an articulate and forceful advocate for LGBTI rights; she presided over the July 2013 launch of the year-long Free and Equal campaign, designed to educate the global community on the equal rights of LGBTI people. Most importantly, LGBTI activists and supporters as well as friendly member states and special procedures have become more coordinated and persistent in their efforts to ensure that the UNHRC assumes leadership on this issue.

If the UNHRC hopes to make tangible progress on LGBTI rights in the near future, there are several steps that should be considered:

  • The appointment of an independent expert in the form of a special procedure to conduct ongoing monitoring of violence and discrimination against LGBTI people, as well as to investigate the impact of anti-LGBTI laws on the human rights of LGBTI people.
  • The introduction of a follow-on SOGI resolution that expands on and develops the council’s evolving understanding of the human rights of LGBTI people.
  • Regular, dedicated space on the agenda of the council to explore these issues, perhaps through an official annual thematic panel event.
  • As High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s term ends, it is critical that her successor, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, continues the office’s advocacy on this issue and that it remains a priority for all other UN human rights bodies and institutions.

Photo Credit: UN Geneva (UN flags)
Photo Credit: Benson Kua (Rainbow flag)

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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