Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Botswana’s bid to derail gender body fails

Botswana’s attempt to block the appointment United Nations newly designated Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) issues was defeated last week in a closely contested election that upheld the position.

Botswana led African nations in a bid to postpone the appointment of the organisation’s Independent Expert position on the “protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, and gender identity”.

The new special envoy position was created during a historic vote on June 30 this year. Thailand’s Vitit Muntarbhorn, widely considered an expert on human rights, currently holds the title.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trangender (LGBT) activists and human rights agencies highlighted the significant benefits that could come from this specific oversight.

No longer would sexual orientation and gender identity issues be placed as footnotes to wider categories such as gender violence. Instead, these topics would be given special attention to meet the specific and unique ways in which violence against the LGBT community could manifest. This can include but is not limited to conversion attempts, forced sterilisation, higher rates of violence and homicide and much more.

Earlier this month, Botswana ÔÇö acting on behalf of the African block ÔÇö presented to member states a new resolution that specifically called for the postponement of the SOGI Independent Expert Mandate.

Botswana argued that because sexual orientation and gender identity are not universally recognised as applicable to human rights standards, the SOGI Independent Expert Mandate was an unlawful use of the UN’s powers. The proposed resolution by Botswana against the mandate stated in part … “we are alarmed that the Council is delving into matters which fall essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of States counter to the commitment in the United Nations Charter to respect the sovereignty of States and the principle of non-intervention. More importantly, it arises owing to the ominous usage of the two notions: sexual orientation and gender identity. We wish to state that those two notions are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments.

However, LGBT rights groups were quick to mobilise. They pointed out that while rights such as same-gender marriage may still be subjected to the whims of domestic policy, the basic and unassailable rights of citizens to express their sexual orientation and/or gender identity are firmly entrenched in established and universal human rights standards that every member of the UN is expected to uphold. This, they contested, is not up for debate.

Various agencies were also quick to highlight that over 50 mandates had been created by the UN to address emerging issues by improving oversight. And, by a narrow margin, it seems the majority of the UN’s members have decided they agree.

Held firm by a block of Latin American countries that initiated the original resolution to create the SOGI mandate, the vote resulted in 84 countries in favour of the amendment ÔÇö known as the LAC 8 Amendment ÔÇö with 77 against and 17 countries abstaining.

Right groups were quoted stating that: “This is a significant victory because it affirms that the United Nations will not just pursue LGBT equality in states where it is already at least partially recognised. As part of its work on fundamental rights, the UN will continue to hold all countries accountable ÔÇö whether their domestic policy is LGBT friendly or not.”

The vote against Botswana’s proposed resolution has also been hailed as a victory for the Human Rights Council’s authority, which has been assailed in recent years by attempts to undermine its decision-making powers.

Muntarbhorn has wasted no time in making good on his new SOGI Independent Expert position either. He delivered a statement on November 22 to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, stating: The vortex of violence and discrimination, in their multiple forms, often starts in the home, at school, in the community and in the surrounding environment, with violations breeding violations. 

“We are currently witnessing a proliferation of hate speech, often rampant in the media and on social media networks, which fuels antagonism steeped in homophobia, and transphobia.”

Muntarbhorn emphasised that he would use his new position to hold member states accountable to the principle of nondiscrimination that is at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the end of attempts to undermine or even completely eradicate the SOGI Independent Expert position. Those countries that abstained from the vote will be crucial in safeguarding the mandate and all that it represents.

Hopefully, nations like Singapore, which voted against the mandate, could also be won over to help bolster the slim majority that stands on the side of equality and human rights.

In the meantime, though, this small but significant victory should be a cause for celebration.

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