/ 25 March 2011

UN proposal incenses gay activists

South Africa’s recent signing of a United Nations joint statement aimed at preventing violence against gays and lesbians has been overshadowed by the government’s support for a resolution that human rights activists are saying would be unconstitutional in the country itself.

On March 31 47 members of the United Nations Human Rights Council will vote on whether to pass the resolution proposed by South Africa on March 17.

The resolution calls for an “open-ended intergovernmental working group to elaborate [on] new concepts such as sexual orientation”, and “decides that the aforementioned working group shall be the single modality and framework of the United Nations Human Rights Council within which all the deliberations on sexual orientation — shall be undertaken”.

The proposal has riled South African and international human rights and gay rights activists. Said Zackie Achmat, co-founder of the Social Justice Coalition: “As it stands the resolution would be unconstitutional.

It stops any further UN investigation or report on sexual orientation and gender identity anywhere. “If enormous hate crimes happen, as in Uganda, then the UN can’t investigate. It must first decide what sexual orientation means.” He said the resolution also suggests that sexual orientation and gender identity are not part of international law.

Although South Africa has shown some willingness to change its international relations policy relating to sexual orientation, there has been confusion about the direction to take because of the antigay prejudices of countries such as Russia, the African group and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Achmat said he is discussing the matter with the department of international relations and cooperation.

Initiating dialogue
Jessica Stern, director of programmes at the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, confirmed this week that South African activists had been trying to initiate a dialogue with the government on the joint statement. “Many of us from around the world think that South Africa has put regional political interests before human rights and is trying to appease other African countries,” Stern said.

“There is an overwhelming sentiment within the African group at the UN that is opposed to recognising human rights violations based on sexual orientation. South Africa is primarily collaborating with governments that refuse to acknowledge discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Stern said that while South Africa is suggesting a single entity to deal with issues of sexual orientation, “no one knows what that entity is. It is suggesting one space that is purely intergovernmental, with no access for civil society, and that would undo decades of work.” She said that while the joint statement which South Africa has endorsed is non-binding and has no immediate implications, the resolution will have binding implications, for example, for the allocation of resources.

Although certain governments are mobilising to have the resolution withdrawn, “there is a very real possibility that this resolution will pass”, she warned. The department of international relations said in a statement this week: “The issue of sexual orientation is sensitive and impacts on a whole range of issues — this issue should be addressed openly, transparently and inclusively.