United Nations Opens Doors to LGBT Rights: Extrajudicial Executions Condemned in UN Vote

The decision to support the inclusion of "sexual orientation" and introduce "gender identity" into the resolution is one in a series of positive developments at the United Nations and in regional human rights systems.
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This week the U.N. opened its doors to the international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community with a panel entitled Leadership in the Fight against Homophobia, headlined by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, human rights defenders Blas Radi (Argentina), Olena Schevchenko (Ukraine), and Gift Trapence (Malawi) and celebrity guests Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Ricky Martin. It was a symbolic day uniting political leaders, courageous activists and outspoken celebrities, paying tribute to the 64 anniversary of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights and the rights of LGBT people around the globe.

When it comes to LGBT human rights, all is not " symbolic" at the United Nations these days. On November 20, less than a month ago, a wave of excitement and relief washed across the room at the United Nations as an historic vote took place in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (A/C.3/67/L.36). The resolution included specific reference to vulnerable groups, including individuals targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, to ensure eequal protection.

Extrajudicial executions include any killing not carried out by the State in conformity with the law and which a government fails to investigate, prosecute and punish. The killing may be done by government forces or any other groups or individuals.

Human rights advocates hoped for a passing vote for the extrajudicial executions resolution to contain inclusive language of sexual orientation and gender identity but did not presume its inclusion. The passage of the resolution reversed the 2010 proceedings when the same body voted to strip the resolution of reference to "sexual orientation." The Third Committee further demonstrated its commitment to the universality of human rights by including for the first time, reference to "gender identity."

Introduced biennially, the resolution urges States to protect the right to life of all people, including by calling upon States to investigate killings based on discriminatory grounds.

On the day of the vote, I sat in the U.N. chamber, amongst an international coalition of organizations dedicated to human rights, which have worked tirelessly for this day. Some were present for the vote; others watched online from around the world. We were grateful for our work together, for this result and knowing, as we celebrated a hard won victory, there is more to be done.

The resolution urges States "to investigate promptly and thoroughly all killings, including... killings committed for any discriminatory reason, including sexual orientation or gender identity." Apart from Human Rights Council resolution 17/19, it is the only U.N. resolution to make specific reference to sexual orientation and gender identity. By some measure, this sets a low bar, but progress is incremental and we celebrate every step in advancing human rights for everyone everywhere.

The expansion of the resolution to include "gender identity" on Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day dedicated to those murdered as a result of their gender identity or expression, held particular significance.

Proposals of oppositional amendments were to be expected. The United Arab Emirates, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, presented an amendment that would have stripped the resolution of reference to "sexual orientation and gender identity" and substituted "or for any other reason." The committee rejected the amendment.

The full resolution passed with 108 votes in favor, 1 against, 65 abstentions, and 19 absent. A clear victory.

Before countries voted on the amendment to remove reference to sexual orientation and gender identity, Brazil, the United States, South Africa, and Japan, spoke out to publically condemn the proposal. The Government of Japan ended the silence that has characterized the Asian Group's participation on LGBT rights at the United Nations, stating, "We cannot tolerate any killings of persons because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Our delegation voted against the proposed amendment to this paragraph because we think it is meaningful to mention such killings from the perspective of protecting the rights of LGBT people."

Some governments condemned the reference to sexual orientation and gender identity, including Sudan on behalf of the Arab Group, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Trinidad and Tobago stated that specific reference to "gender identity" presented a "particular challenge" for the country. The Government of Egypt was "gravely alarmed at the attempt to legitimate undetermined concepts like gender identity" by equating them with other forms of discrimination such as that based on race, color, sex, religion, and language. In reference to sexual orientation and gender identity, Egypt stated, "We are alarmed at the attempts to make new rights or new standards."

The vote affirms the resolution's dramatic conclusion in 2010. At that time, the Third Committee removed the reference to "sexual orientation" and was silent on "gender identity." However, in a remarkable turn of events, the resolution was later introduced before the full General Assembly, which voted to reinstate the language.

The decision to support the inclusion of "sexual orientation" and introduce "gender identity" into the resolution is one in a series of positive developments at the United Nations and in regional human rights systems where the need for protection from discrimination regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity is being increasingly recognized.

We see progress in our work of ensuring LGBT people have access to basic human rights but the work is not done. This week we heard the words of Ban Ki-moon: "Lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. They too are born free and equal. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggle for human rights." Let us join the Secretary General of the United Nations, and every human rights advocate on the planet in the effort to achieve human rights for everyone everywhere.

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