Human Rights, Sexual Identity and Gender at the UN

The UN General Assembly voted last week to include “gender identity” in its annual resolution condemning “summary execution and extra-judicial killing.” US Ambassador Susan Rice tweeted, “Fitting, on National #Transgender Day of Remembrance, that #UNGA acknowledges protections on the basis of gender identity.” And, “We will not allow the remarkable progress the #UN has made on #LGBT issues in the last four years to be rolled back.”

“Sexual orientation” had been included in the resolution for a few years but only with great controversy and opposition coming from a broad range of governments (and not just Muslims either). What’s new this year is the addition of “gender identity” to the formulation. Efforts to remove it lost 86-44, with 31 abstentions.

Why would there be any controversy at all? Does anyone really believe that homosexual and transgendered persons should be summarily executed because they are homosexual or transgendered, or for any other reason?

This debate is part of a long-time fight over homosexuality at many international institutions such as the UN and the Organization of American States. The battle began at the UN in the early 2000s when homosexual pressure groups began applying for official status with the UN Economic and Social Council, which gives groups permanent badges to the UN grounds and the ability to submit papers and other documents that are distributed via official UN channels. The UN NGO committee used to reject these groups because they refused to condemn pedophile groups such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association and they refused to acknowledge that freedom of religion trumps homosexual rights. Eventually, led by the Obama administration, the Economic and Social Committee began overruling the NGO committee.

The second and more important battle has been over language in UN documents. The first skirmishes were about how to define family. Here there seems to be a stalemate. The General Assembly has settled on phrases such as “various forms of the family.” This is a typical UN jump ball. The Germans can define it as including homosexuals, while Malta can see this as the nuclear and extended family.

Then there is the yearly debate in the Human Rights Commission–now the Human Rights Council–that has seen Brazil introduce resolutions calling for “sexual orientation and gender identity” (SOGI) to be new categories of non-discrimination in international law. This would place SOGI on the same level as more widely accepted though hardly universally enforced categories such as freedom of religion, political self-determination, freedom of the press, and others that are enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its two implementing treaties from 1966 (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

The Brazilian efforts were defeated year after year, though proponents hardly retired from the field. The UN human rights apparatus–committees and special rapporteurs–decided that SOGI already exists in UN treaties, but they do not have the authority to make their opinions stick.

In the final months of the Bush administration, the French initiated a non-negotiated “statement” that was released at UN headquarters in New York. Signed by sixty-five countries, it called for SOGI to receive special human rights status. A counter statement was circulated by Egypt, and in a matter of days sixty countries signed. Urged by a large and highly organized pressure group of gays and lesbians in the State Department, the Bush Administration almost signed the French statement, but conservatives in the National Security Council and the White House scuttled it at the last minute.

The rhetoric used to gain support for the French statement demonstrates where the argument is now, and why the vote against changing the summary execution resolution lost last week in New York. The French and others said that their efforts were only about stopping violence against homosexual people and nothing more.

Sadly, in some parts of the world such violence exists. In some countries they do in fact kill people for being or acting gay. Or jail and torture them. But when the Holy See offered to sign the French statement if it was limited to violence prevention, the French government refused to modify the statement. Thus the Holy See could not sign and the Catholic Church was accused of favoring the killing of gays and lesbians.

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Austin Ruse is president of C-FAM (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute), a New York and Washington, DC-based research institute that focuses exclusively on international legal and social policy.

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