UN Passes Historic Resolution to Establish Independent SOGI Expert

Saal des UN-Menschenrechtsrats

Worldwide people are exposed to serious human rights violations because of their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). Therefore the UN Human Rights Council has decided to appoint an independent expert on the protection of LGBTI people.

The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on June 30, 2016, to appoint an independent expert that will report on violence and discrimination committed against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. After a heated debate, the resolution “L2/Rev1: Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” to create the post was narrowly approved by a vote of 23 countries in favor, 18 against, and six abstentions.

Protective measures for LGBTI persons deemed insufficient

This resolution is the third passed by the UN Human Rights Council concerning sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). In its first resolution from 2011, the UN commissioned a study on discrimination and violence against individuals based on SOGI. It documented that people worldwide experience severe human rights violations, including killings, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, discrimination in health, employment, housing, and education, as well as bullying and other forms of discrimination and violence. The second resolution that followed in 2014 called for an update of the study. It found that “the overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions.” [1] The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights therefore concluded that the measures in place to protect LGBTI persons were inadequate and pointed out that there was so far no “dedicated human rights mechanism at the international level that has a systematic and comprehensive approach to the human rights situation of LGBT and intersex persons.” [2]

Resolution garners huge support from civil society

This motivated several countries to prepare a draft resolution, a step that received strong support from civil society. A core group of seven Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay – tabled the draft, which was co-sponsored by 41 additional countries, including European countries and the United States. It not only drew an enthusiastic response on social media (#SOGIexpertNOW), but also received overwhelming support from 628 NGOs from 151 countries – with 70 percent of these organizations coming from the global South. On June 27, three days before the vote, the NGOs presented their statement of support (video) at the UN Human Rights Council.  

Debate turns contentious in UN Human Rights Council

The debate in the UN Human Rights Council lasted well over three hours. There were 17 votes on the resolution. A number of countries – especially those belonging to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), excluding Albania – did everything they could to impede the resolution. Right at the beginning, Saudi Arabia filed a “no action” motion in order to have the resolution removed from the agenda. It was supported by countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Pakistan, but failed to find a majority in the council.

The arguments of the resolution’s opponents centered mainly on the issue of cultural relativism, that is, they criticized the resolution as polarizing because, according to them, it takes no regard for the cultural and religious characteristics of individual countries. The amendments proposed regarding this issue aimed to underline the importance of respecting cultural, religious, and traditional values, while at the same time denouncing the negative impact of supposedly foreign values, concepts, and lifestyles on which there is no consensus. 

An analysis of the amendments

According to André du Plessis, UN Programme and Advocacy Manager at ILGA World, a worldwide LGBTI federation of nearly 1,200 member organizations, the tabled amendments can be divided into three categories: those that sought to have all reference to “sexual orientation and gender identity” removed from the resolution (amendments 1, 2, und 10); those concerning the addition of preambular paragraphs aimed at ensuring the respect of national sovereignty and traditional values (amendments 3 to 9): and those that intended to block the creation of the independent expert post altogether (amendment 11). While the first and last categories failed to find majorities (A/HRC/32/L.71, A/HRC/32/L.72, A/HRC/32/L.80, A/HRC/32/L.81), all amendments in the second group were adopted (A/HRC/32/L.73, A/HRC/32/L.74, A/HRC/32/L.75, A/HRC/32/L.76, A/HRC/32/L.77, A/HRC/32/L.78, A/HRC/32/L.79).   

Reaction to the resolution

The LGBTI community’s response to the resolution was euphoric. It was hailed as a “historic victory,” “an important step forward,” and a “milestone,” because “everyone, without exception, is equally entitled to protection under international human rights law” (UN Women). ARC International, one of the leading SOGI organizations in Geneva, stated: “We hope that this resolution will mark a turning point in the struggle to create a world free from violence and discrimination for all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.” Renato Sabbadini from ILGA World was pleased about the “truly defining and game-changing result” and the “dedicated mechanism at the international level.” He added that it will make human rights violations against LGBTI persons more visible, which will in turn make it harder for countries “not to be held accountable for them.” Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE) also applauded the resolution, pointing out that the new UN mandate “has the potential to bring more attention to gender identity issues and the challenges facing trans people.” To make this happen, GATE formulated ten demands and key points aimed at helping trans activists better advocate for their cause.

Exposing human rights violations

The responsibilities of the new independent expert will include identifying the root causes of violence and discrimination based on SOGI, and assessing existing international human rights instruments as to whether they are suitable for overcoming violence and discrimination against persons because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The expert will also be tasked with identifying best practices in the protection of LGBTI persons and engaging in dialogue with governments and institutions on how the situation could be improved. The expert will compile annual UN reports featuring recommendations and conclusions on ways to curb SOGI-related violence and discrimination, which will then be discussed at the UN Human Rights Council. The post, whose mandate runs for three years, will particularly focus on exposing human rights violations and raising awareness of the issue, as well as strengthening capacity-building and cooperation in support of efforts to combat violence and discrimination of this nature worldwide.

The new UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will be appointed at the UN Human Rights Council session in September 2016. The deadline for applications is August 4.


Results of the vote

Voting in favor of the resolution (23): Albania, Belgium, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Macedonia, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Vietnam

Voting against the resolution (18): Algeria, Bangladesh, Burundi, China, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Morocco, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Togo, United Arab Emirates

Abstaining on the resolution (6): Botswana, Ghana, India, Namibia, Philippines, South Africa


[1] UN Conclusions, HRC/29/23, Report of May 2015, p. 20.

[2] UN Conclusions, HRC/29/23, Report of May 2015, p. 20.