Sexual orientation and gender identity panel discussion at UNHQ
Saturday, 12 December 2009 21:21


To mark International Human Rights Day 2009, a cross-regional group of Member States* hosted a panel discussion entitled ‘Opposing grave human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity’.  The panel, held at UN Headquarters in New York, was organised with the assistance of a coalition of NGOs defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It provided an informal means of following up on the historic statement on ‘human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity’ that Argentina delivered at last year’s General Assembly on behalf of 66 States. Some States also used the panel discussion as an opportunity to follow up on the counter-statement Syria delivered on behalf of 57 States last year.


The five panelists spoke of their own experiences as a gay man from India, a gay human rights defender from Uganda, an Anglican priest originally from Zambia, a transgender activist from the Philippines and a lesbian activist from Honduras. Their very personal stories of the consequences of not conforming to gender norms and the kinds of harassment, abuse and suffering this had caused, clearly moved the audience, which included representatives from about 50 Member States. Although they reported on positive developments, such as the recent decision by the Delhi High Court to overturn India's criminal law against homosexual behaviour, they also highlighted alarming developments, such as the draconian bill before the Ugandan Parliament that seeks to criminalise this same behavior with the penalty of life imprisonment, or in certain circumstance, the death penalty. Although Egypt and St.Lucia expressed their opposition to, or hesitancy at using the term 'sexual orientation and gender identity', the overall tone of the event was a positive one.


* Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, France,Netherlands,Norway and Sweden.


From a total of eight interventions, only Egypt and St Lucia posed provocative questions or made cautionary statements. Egypt reiterated its opposition to all forms of discrimination, but expressed concern that 'controversial' and 'disturbing' notions were being introduced at the UN, and on this basis, took objection to the title of the side event. Egypt was also concerned that the report to the General Assembly by the Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Mr. Martin Scheinin (which interpreted 'gender' to include the human rights of women, men and LGBTI individuals), had created confusion amongst States as to what they mean when they use the term 'gender'. Egypt warned that this in turn could have negative implications for the level of support some States (itself included) may have towards to the new UN gender entity, which was agreed to by the General Assembly in September this year. 


St Lucia was more measured in its remarks after the panel, reiterating its belief in the fundamental right of every person to live with dignity, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but pointing out that it was not possible to assert that all forms of sexual orientation 'do no harm' (as one panelist had suggested). Rather, St. Lucia suggested that the various orientations needed to be defined and subject to scientific study so that there were no 'grey areas'.
It was notable that the US made a strong positive statement, given that it was only after the Obama Administration took office that the US belatedly endorsed the 2008 GA statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. The US commented that this issue had been neglected by the UN for too long, and there were a range of protections in the UDHR and other legal instruments that required States to protect the human rights of all people. These instruments obligated States to ensure no person was subject to torture, cruel or degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest or other human rights violations. The US acknowledged that some States were uncomfortable talking about these issues, but compared the suggestion that the panel discussion promoted homosexuality, with the distorted view that CEDAW somehow promoted discrimination against women.


The other notable positive statement was made by the Holy See, which expressed its continued opposition to the death penalty, torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, all forms of violence, and discriminatory penal laws that criminalise homosexuality. It appealed to States to confront murder and abuse on all levels, particularly when conducted by or on behalf of the State, and to combat impunity towards human rights violations.


Other supportive statements were made by France, the Netherlands, Nicaragua. It now remains to be seen when and in what form the General Assembly might take up this topic again, or whether it will revert to being a topic that is primarily addressed at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Last Updated on Monday, 01 March 2010 19:44
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