UN group condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

On Friday, the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council passed, by a vote of 25 to 14, with 7 abstentions, a resolution condemning all discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The vote cut across some usual political fault lines.  The resolution was presented by Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay. Voting in favor were Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Montenegro, Peru, Philippines, Romania, South Africa, Macedonia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the USA, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Colombia and Uruguay are not members of the Council this time around, though they cosponsored the measure, so they did not get to vote on it.

Votes against came from Algeria, Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Indonesia, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The abstaining nations were Burkina Faso, China, Congo (the former French Colony), India, Kazakhstan, Namibia and Sierra Leone. 

The vote was a numerical advance over a similar resolution in 2011, which had been presented  by South Africa and had passed 23 to 19 with 3 abstentions.

This time, language which would have required a regular reporting system on violations of people’s rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped during negotiations on the final text.  However, the vote was still hailed by human rights organizations worldwide as a huge symbolic advance.

The text condemns violence and discrimination based on gender identity and welcomes advances in the protection of those rights, and calls for the collecting of date and general reporting on the subject.

Some countries, including ones who support gay and lesbian rights, had expressed fear that such a resolution would be used by wealthy developed countries for demonizing African and Muslim countries, so as to justify attacks against them or interference in their internal affairs. Not all countries that voted “no” have laws on the books that criminalize gay, lesbian and/or transgendered identity or activities; in some cases there is a worry about internal pressure groups that want harsher policies.  And there are gray areas:  For example homosexuality is not a criminal offense in Russia, but it is a punishable offense to carry out “homosexual propaganda” among youth, which provides a big opportunity for authorities to harass the gay community. 

No countries which currently have socialist governments criminalize people for their gender identification or sexual orientation, and some have explicit anti-discrimination laws. After the Russian Revolution of October 1917, Lenin’s government decriminalized same sex relations, which had been criminal offenses under the Russian Tsars. This was reversed by the Soviet government during the Stalin period.  But by the 1970s a number of Eastern European socialist governments had dropped all criminal sanctions.  Vietnam has never had laws on the books penalizing gays, lesbians or transgendered people.

In a number of countries that have enlightened policies on sexual orientation, such as South Africa and Chile, the local communist parties played an important role in the drive to decriminalize and protect people against discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation or gender orientation.  Most of the communist parties worldwide, including the Communist Party USA in our own country, call for an end to all such discrimination and positive actions to put a stop to persecution.    

Worldwide, there are still several score countries, mostly in Africa and the Muslim world, that criminalize homosexual behavior or identity at a national level.  In Africa, one hears the idea expressed that there was no homosexuality there until missionaries and colonialists arrived.  While the missionaries and colonialists undoubtedly brought in homophobia and punitive practices and while rightwing U.S. missionaries are behind persecution campaigns in some countries, some of the indigenous cultures were, of course quite homophobic on their own. Some indigenous cultures, however, were not homophobic before the arrival of Europeans and their missionaries. Some North American Native tribes, for example, accorded transgender individduals a place of honor in the community.

The death penalty for homosexual acts is still on the books in some countries, including key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.  

Criminal penalties are seldom enforced in most countries that still prescribe them; however vigilante actions, including murders, are much more common, as is discrimination in jobs, housing, public accommodation, education and other things.  The UN resolution is helpful in this regard, because it does not confine itself to the formal policies of governments.

Photo: Riot police guard gay rights activists who have been beaten by anti-gay protesters during an authorized gay rights rally in St.Petersburg, Russia, June 29, 2013. Police detained several gay activists, who were outnumbered by the protesters. Dozens of gay activists had to be protected by police as they gathered for the parade, which proceeded with official approval despite recently passed legislation targeting gays. Dmitry Lovetsky/AP 


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.