African nations fail to block UN’s move to appoint gay rights expert

Wednesday November 23 2016

Ugandan men hold a rainbow flag reading

Ugandan men hold a rainbow flag reading "Join hands to end LGBT genocide" as they celebrate on August 9, 2014 during the annual gay pride in Entebbe, Uganda. PHOTO | ISAAC KASAMANI | AFP 

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A bid by African countries to delay the appointment of the first-ever UN expert tasked with investigating LGBT rights abuses worldwide was defeated on Tuesday.

A draft resolution demanding talks on the legality of the new expert’s mandate had been put forward by the African group of countries in the General Assembly’s human rights committee.

The measure however was gutted of its key demand when a group of Latin American countries presented an amendment deleting the request to delay the appointment.

The amendment was adopted by a vote of 84 to 77, with 17 abstentions. South Africa broke ranks and voted in favour of the amendment, while European countries, the United States, Canada and South American countries also voted to maintain the expert in his post.

Somalia and Rwanda abstained. China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia were among the countries that supported the African bid to suspend the appointment.

The new amended draft resolution — without the suspension of the LGBT rights expert — was adopted by a vote of 94 to 3, with 80 abstentions.

The UN Human Rights Council in September appointed international law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand to investigate abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.

That appointment was agreed following a stormy debate that also saw several African states vote against the decision.


Muntarbhorn, who began his new mandate this month, has been appointed for three years.

He will carry out country visits, raise allegations of LGBT rights violations with governments and work to protect rights defenders. At the General Assembly, the African bid was led by Botswana, which argued that sexual orientation and gender identity were not defined under international human rights law.

“The African group is wondering which international legal instrument defines the concept of sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Botswana’s UN ambassador Charles Ntwaagae.

“These notions are not enshrined in any international human rights instrument,” he said. “The African group is of the view that the mandate of the independent expert lacks the necessary specificity to be carried out fairly.”

A total of 73 countries — almost 40 per cent of all 193 UN members — still have laws on their books making homosexuality a crime.

In Africa alone, 33 countries have anti-gay laws including Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan and Mauritania.

The measure is now expected to go to the General Assembly for a vote, but it is unlikely that the bid to block the LGBT expert will be revived. Nearly 800 human rights organizations and civil society groups had urged UN member-states in a joint letter not to overturn Muntarbhorn’s appointment.

The outcome of the vote “affirms that the right to be protected from violence and discrimination applies equally to LGBT people,” said Boris Dittrich, LGBT rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“It also respects the integrity of the Human Rights Council, as the UN’s top human rights body, to ensure that mechanisms are in place to protect rights not just in theory, but in practice.”