The UN needs to appoint a special expert to defend LGBT rights globally


Around the world, from Orlando to Bangladesh, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people face violence and discrimination. It’s time for the United Nations to do more to help tackle this problem – appointing an independent expert to defend LGBT rights will help, write Pooja Patel and Jacobus Witbooi.

Around the world, from Orlando to Bangladesh, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people face violence and discrimination. It’s time for the United Nations to do more to help tackle this problem – appointing an independent expert to defend LGBT rights will help, write Pooja Patel and Jacobus Witbooi.

This week in Geneva as the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council draws to a close, there’s an unprecedented international push for the UN to appoint an independent expert to focus on LGBT issues – in the same way that the UN has independent experts assigned to the protecting the rights of older persons and persons living with albinism as well as a special expert dedicated to helping efforts to end the high levels of violence against women around the world.

The mass murder of 49 people this month in an American gay bar and the consequent violent targeting of the victims’ funerals drove home an escapable truth; that no country on the planet is immune to the type of hate and violence that LGBT people are routinely subjected to.

All too often, the people who seek to defend or advance LGBT rights are thrust into the firing line.

Last October, a human rights defender in the Ukraine received ongoing threats in connection with his advocacy before being brutally assaulted. In the Kyrgyz Republic, an LGBT rights organisation was subjected to attempted arson last year. In Zambia, an NGO working on LGBT rights has faced undue delays in the consideration of their registration. In Honduras, LGBT rights activists have been targeted and killed. The list goes on and on.

The examples above are some of the cases the UN has taken up in its research and advocacy. It is telling that the majority of the communications on LGBT issues that the existing Special Procedures system has engaged in since September 2014 has focused only on violations against LGBT defenders. While some mandate holders have addressed LGBT specificities in their thematic reports to the Council, very few have ‘mainstreamed’ the issue in terms of the allegations they choose to act upon when it comes to persons who are simply LGBT and not defenders.

The scope of LGBT focused work that the UN can conduct through its Special Procedures is limited. Piecemeal, with no cohesive approach or systemic objective.

The UN has a role to play in helping countries around that world to combat the specific violence and discrimination that targets LGBT people. To do so, it needs a strong mandate to address the root causes of oppression and to address the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

An expert that can not just be a powerful advocate for LGBT rights, but can also research and consult with communities, engage with governments, and provide technical assistance to develop tangible strategies for filling the gap in legal protections aimed at reducing violent hate.

This is a need that the Governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay have recognised. They have drafted the historic resolution that is due to be voted on at the Human Rights Council this Friday.

That LGBT defenders often conduct their work within a climate of social exclusion and deep-rooted homophobia and transphobia is beyond doubt. Why then the hesitation from some members of the Human Rights Council to deny them the support of a dedicated expert?

The obscure counter arguments against a LGBT specific mandate may offer a convenient figleaf for the less progressive Council members, but the choice is clear – member nations need to decide whether they are comfortable with the current level of hate and violence heaped on gay, lesbian and trans people or whether they think more could be done.

For the International Service for Human Rights and more than 500 human rights organisations working on the rights of LGBT people, such as Iranti-org in South Africa, the ASEAN Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression Caucus, and Closet de Sor Juana in Mexico, it’s not a matter of just “could” it’s a matter of “must”.

Addressing the violent repression against LGBT defenders conducting their human rights work remains paramount towards addressing violence and discrimination against LGBT people across the world.

A specific mandate focusing on combatting discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity could ensure better systematized attention to the breadth and scope of issues faced by LGBT people. It could bring the much-needed attention at the international level on root causes of such violations and the multiple forms of discrimination.

All nations claim to agree that no human being should face violence, torture, stigmatization and abuse. Yet LGBT people around the world continue to face a specialised form or hate and violence. It needs a specialised response.

The Human Rights Council started the job with a historic resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity in 2011, followed up in 2014 when support from all regions increased measurably. Now it has a chance to take the next step.

An independent expert will strengthen the Council’s hand in protecting LGBT people around the world from hate and violence. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

Pooja Patel is Programme Manager at International Service for Human Rights focusing on LGBT rights and Jacobus Witbooi is the Programmes Director for Pan-Africa ILGA, an NGO focusing on the rights of LGBTI people in the African continent


  • Human rights defenders
  • LGBT rights
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council