The U.N. Just Created A New Position For LGBTQ Rights — Is It Enough?

By Jamie J. Hagen

This summer, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to appoint an independent expert on human rights concerns pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity. This person will monitor violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people worldwide, identify common causes and concerns, and work with governments to protect these vulnerable groups.

Appointing an independent expert to conduct this task is an important sign of the U.N.’s commitment to LGBTQ individuals. Yet, as those who work as activists on both the grassroots and global level can attest, the conversation about LGBTQ rights as human rights is contentious. The main challenges ahead include determining how best to serve such a varied community, moving from policy to implementation, and choosing who to appoint to this role. The new expert’s job will not be easy.

A Response Too Long In Coming

According to the Human Rights Council’s resolution, the new expert serves for three years and make annual reports on their findings. Their tasks include raising awareness, engaging in dialogue, assessing existing work, and working in cooperation with states regarding acts of violence and discrimination pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity.

This is crucial work for addressing global anti-LGBTQ violence, says Jessica Stern, executive director of LGBTQ human rights organization Outright International: “The U.N. vote means that there will now be a full time authority who works for the next three years in an independent capacity, free of government dependence, to look at the root causes of homophobia and transphobia.Part of the work Outright International does is monitor discrimination and violence of this kind in shadow reports.

But not everyone is pleased about how long it took, or the way it’s been discussed. Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program for Human Rights Watch (HRW), monitored the debate over the independent expert appointment, and found it wanting. “The terms of the debate were stark — essentially questioning whether the rights of LGBT people had any place in the U.N. system,” he told me. ”This flies in the face of the universality of human rights and attempts instead to impose a relativist position, based on culture and belief.” The relativist argument would frame LGBTQ treatment as a matter of cultural preference, rather than global human rights. Relativist arguments such as those used about sexual rights have long been used as an excuse for violence against women.

For Reid, the expert appointment is long overdue. This is an issue that has not been given adequate attention within the U.N. system,” he says, “and it is time that abuses against LGBTQ people are addressed as part of the routine and systematic work of the UNHRC.HRW has been working on human rights issues since 1978 and established their LGBT Rights program in 2004.

Bureaucracy Vs. Grassroots Efforts

Some are skeptical of the U.N.’s involvement in LGBTQ issues at all. Gabriel Hoosain Khan, a South African human rights activist and artist, worries that the appointment of an independent expert will erase the complicated and varied lived experiences of queers in global movement work. He writes:

“In attempting to engage with these international bodies — what do we lose? Lose in our purpose and mode as civil society actors; actors who unlike states should be giving voice, opportunity and space to those who are most vulnerable? If these positions do not represent the groups or ideas of those who are most vulnerable — or even engage those who are most vulnerable — whom do these positions represent?”

Khan wonders whether U.N. recognition may result in well-received policy and legal landmarks at the expense of actual effectiveness: “While I acknowledge the standard-setting power of international bodies, I wonder whether these standards ever trickle down to states, and more so whether domestic standards ever trickle down to those communities who are most vulnerable.” Scott Long, founder of the Human Rights Watch LGBTQ Rights program, agrees, tweeting: “I fear we’ve traded mechanisms that do have impact in cases of abuse, to pursue political recognition for ourselves.” This is particularly troubling to Long in light of the fact that U.N. independent experts are only able to work in countries where they’re welcomed. For example, it remains to be seen whether the new independent expert will be able to respond to violence like the recent police attack of the Pride event in Uganda, or whether they will be restricted to goodwill missions in countries that already espouse LGBTQ rights.

Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons are intimately familiar with the polarizing nature of treating LGBTQ rights as human rights; their book Queer Wars explores international response to LGBTQ rights and activists’ responses. For them, the expert’s most important job will be to connect grassroots efforts. We suggest listening very carefully before engaging in international activism, keeping colonial legacies in mind, and finding ways to support local activists on terms that they and their communities request. It’s also important to maintain some self-awareness,” they told me. Including voices from these communities is one way to work to avoid some of the pitfalls human rights activists have faced in the past in promoting a predominantly Western voice. Even something as simple as translating the resolution into different languages can go a long way to opening the door to work with grassroots activists across the globe.

Altman and Symon are cautiously optimistic about the role of the new independent expert, noting that some countries have changed their policies when subjected to regular reviews of this kind. They’re heartened that the resolution was presented by a Core Group of seven Latin American countries, majority-Catholic countries that have historically been resistant to this work, in putting the resolution to a vote. But they also note that the expert may not have much opportunity to deal with historically LGBTQ-hostile countries: “Since the independent expert will have very limited powers it’s likely that they will mostly work with sympathetic governments.”

Not Just Anyone Will Do

“We don’t yet know who will fill the role, so its impact will depend who’s appointed and how they go about their job,” note Altman and Symon. In writing some people into policy protections, others are inevitably written out; the new expert will need to be aware of the full range of challenges confronting LGBTQ people worldwide in order to avoid further marginalizing the very populations they’re trying to help.

“We need the Human Rights Council to appoint a human rights expert with a deep relationship with the LGBTQI civil society and feminists groups, and a deep commitment to tackling fundamentalist interpretations of gender and sexuality,” says Stern. She would like to see the U.N. address medical intervention of intersex bodies without consent, the recognition of self-determined gender identity, and the recognition of intersectional forms of discrimination.

Meeting all the goals set forward by the resolution will take engagement from all communities committed to human rights work. The new expert must unite bureaucratic and grassroots efforts, confront relativist arguments about LGBTQ rights, and pay careful attention to how work on the global level trickles down to the most vulnerable individuals. Much rests on appointing the right individual to this role, and holding them accountable as their three years of work take shape. Applicants to the position are currently under review until the appointment in late September.

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