I previously expressed dismay and pessimism about the “progress” on LGBT rights at the United Nations. Unfortunately my fears were well-founded and the Human Rights Council debate on March 7 on the topic was a circus.
Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge that the debate in and of itself was important (an “historic event” to quote Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights) and I appreciate that there were many states that spoke out in favor of human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. But the fact is that the Council is made up of murderous regimes—in particular Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Nigeria—and other deeply homophobic states that will fight tooth and nail to keep this off the agenda.
On a positive note, Argentina on behalf of Mercosur expressed that they saw the debate as the beginning of a dialogue that will pave the way for reflection on this issue at national level around the world. And the European Union was correct in its assertion that this is not about creating new rights but a matter of ensuring that all human rights can be enjoyed by all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The reactions by others were, on the contrary, tragic. First out was Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). To begin with, most OIC states staged a walk-out when the panel started. And when it was time for Pakistan to deliver its remarks it went on a hateful tirade: first, OIC “condemns” the effort of “certain states” to address this issue before the Council on the basis that “controversial notions such as sexual orientation are vague and misleading.”
This is followed—no surprise—by the cultural/religious justification: “licentious behavior promoted under the so-called concept of sexual orientation” is against religious dogma. In OIC’s view, bringing sexual orientation into the remit of human rights will lead to “social normalization and legitimization of pedophilia.” When concluding his bigoted and deeply offensive remarks the representative from Pakistan said: “We expect that this panel will be the last of its kind in the context of the Human Rights Council.”
As if that was not enough, Mauritania on behalf of the Arab Group felt a need to add more ridiculousness to the discussion. Referring to a “forceful imposition” of this issue on the human rights framework, the Mauritanian delegate explained that the Arab states refused to engage in debate about sexual orientation fearing that doing so would make dialogue seem legitimate. Don’t ask me why Mauritania spoke in the first place if that’s the Arab Group’s policy. Mauritania then added its skewed analysis of why this issue has come up before the Council: some states promote discussion about this in order to deflect from debate about discrimination on the basis of race and religion, especially “migrants and Muslims in Western Countries.”
What is Mauritania’s own record on these issues? In 1989 it denationalized and expelled a large part of its black population purely on racial grounds, an issue which has not yet been fully resolved. Moreover, Mauritanian law does not guarantee freedom of religion and belief. On the contrary the constitution states that the religion of the state and, significantly, the people is Islam. And let’s remember that this is a country were slavery was only abolished in 2005 and where thousands of people live in servitude to this day. I could not care less for its analysis.
In part because South Africa had organized the panel, Senegal was only able to make remarks on behalf of “most members of the African Group.” Speaking of a “hi-jack of the human rights system,” Senegal referred to the importance of preserving social and cultural norms (read: homophobia) at regional level. This is a recurring theme in homophobic rhetoric, devoid of any real historical significance. Yes, various religions have at various points in history been very hostile to non-conformist sexual orientations and expressions, but many societies including both African and Arab have also tolerated, accepted or even praised homosexual relations. There is no getting around that the anti-sodomy laws in many African countries, for example, are products of colonialism rather than expressions of some kind of innate social and cultural norms.
It’s also worth highlighting I think, that the Nigerian delegate said that while it subscribes fully to the statement by Senegal, “there is no discrimination against any citizen or non-citizen of Nigeria based on these factors.” Now let me just point out that Nigeria is one of seven countries that still punishes same-sex sexual relations with death, at least in theory. Granted only in parts of the country, but still. (Interestingly, the delegate denied this…)
While I can’t hide my disappointment with the state of affairs on this topic, I do hope that the Council finds a way to continue the dialogue. By way of concluding, I quote the Swedish ambassador: “We cannot condone extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, honor killings, torture or hate crimes just because some find it uncomfortable to talk about these matters.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening.
See for yourselves: