An advisory report on the protection of human rights in the context of counter terrorism recently submitted to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA) includes a radical redefinition of the term “gender,” claiming that it is a purely social construct not connected to biology.
UN Special Rapporteur Martin Scheinin was asked to report to the UN on “gender-based human rights abuses in counterterrorism measures” – with an intended focus presumably upon hardships encountered by women caught up in the war on terror. Instead, in his report, Scheinin asserted “Gender is not synonymous with women but rather encompasses the social responsibilities that underlie how women’s and men’s roles, functions and responsibilities, including in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, are defined and understood.”
Labeling gender a “social construct,” the non-binding submission claims that “gender is not static,” but rather “changeable over time and across contexts.” Readers are told that “understanding gender as a social and shifting construct rather than as a biological and fixed category is important because it helps identify the complex and inter-related gender-based human rights violations caused by counterterrorism measures.”
Such a definition of gender has been bitterly debated in formal UN settings for years and has been rejected repeatedly by member states in negotiated UN documents. There is a longtime tension on this question between the sovereign states of the GA and the UN bureaucracy. Even though the GA has repeatedly defined gender in a traditional way, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women defines gender, similar to this new bureaucratic report, as a social construct.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which is binding upon ratifying nations, states that gender “refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society.” In addition, two non-binding UN conference outcome documents – the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Report of the Conference on Human Settlements held the following year in Istanbul – consider “gender” to be “understood in its ordinary, generally accepted usage.”
Another concern with this new document is its promotion of “gender identity and sexual orientation.” The document asserts that three treaties – including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – now require States to ensure “de jure and de facto” non-discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation and gender identity.” In support, the report cites the non-binding Yogyakarta Principles, a statement devised by representatives from various non-governmental organizations and UN special rapporteurs. Critics point out that not only do the treaty texts fail to mention sexual orientation and gender identity as a human rights category, but member states have repeatedly rejected inclusion of such a category.
Originally circulated during the sleepy summer months, the report has only recently begun to attract attention from delegates to the GA’s Third Committee, which is the usual forum for vetting contentious social issues. One delegate told the Friday Fax that “it would not be surprising that not only was the document released during the summer months,” but that it was snuck into a report ostensibly on counterterrorism to avoid immediate notice. He speculated that once implanted, advocates would begin to cite the “stealth” document as additional authority in support of a gay rights agenda.