A vote at yesterday’s sitting of a United Nations General Assembly committee to have the newly appointed UN expert to address violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity continue his work has been hailed as “a victory for human rights”.
In a statement released by Human Rights Watch, the organisation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights advocacy director, Boris Dittrich, said: “The Third Committee’s vote affirms that the right to be protected from violence and discrimination applies equally to LGBT people. It also respects the integrity of the Human Rights Council, as the UN’s top human rights body, to ensure that mechanisms are in place to protect rights not just in theory, but [also] in practice.”
The vote was taken after the African Group put forward a resolution to have the operations of the first independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was appointed in September by the Human Rights Council.
The letter by the African Group reads: “We are even more disturbed at the attempt to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviours, while ignoring that intolerance and discrimination regrettably exist in various parts of the world, be it on the basis of colour, race, sex or religion, to mention only a few. These attempts … seriously jeopardise the entire international human rights framework as they create divisions.
“We are alarmed that the council is delving into matters which fall essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states counter to the commitment in the United Nations Charter to respect the sovereignty of states and the principle of non-intervention. More importantly, it arises owing to the ominous usage of the two notions: sexual orientation and gender identity. We wish to state that those two notions are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments.
“We, therefore, call for the suspension of the activities of the appointed independent expert pending the determination of this issue.”
Although activists raised their objections to South Africa not distancing itself from the African Group’s resolution — and its abstaining from the June vote to appoint Muntarbhorn — they welcomed Jerry Matjila, the South African ambassador, to the UN’s speech during the voting session.
In addressing the sitting, Matjila explained South Africa’s “principled position” on the matter, saying: “Discrimination has torn South Africa apart for the past 350 years. We will [therefore] fight discrimination everywhere. We cannot discriminate against people who are LGBTI.”
Matjila said that, although South Africa’s stance on the protection of the rights of LGBTI people was “a position disagreed with by many of our colleagues across the continent”, he added: “We are not going to add fresh wounds when we are still healing our wounds in South Africa because of discrimination.”
Welcoming South Africa’s apparent about-turn, Melanie Judge, queer activist and associate professor at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, said: “South Africa’s vote was in step with our Constitution, as it should be. It was also the logical continuation of a UN resolution in 2011 that was led by South Africa and that aimed to address discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Our country’s bold leadership on the rights of LGBTI people should come as no surprise. As the ambassador himself reiterated in his statement at yesterday’s vote, the commitment to non-discrimination in all its forms is the direct result of South Africa’s history of oppression and the desire to now ‘bury discriminations once and for all’.”
Steve Letsike, director of the organisation Access Chapter 2, said: “We applaud South Africa for taking the right step. We are exhausted at often having to keep vigilant over safeguarding the Constitution. The positive vote will not only safeguard the Constitution, it will also encourage the prioritisation of the integrity and dignity of everyone in all their diversity, which in turn will build a united South Africa.”
But Elsbeth Engelbrecht, director of the Triangle Project believed that the apparent about-turn by the South African government was largely owed to pressure from lobby groups both locally and internationally.
“I’m cynical of this change of heart,” Engelbrecht said. “I really do not think this would have happened were it not for the work of activists locally and internationally. I don’t know what the government’s motivations are, but I presume there must have been some introspection subsequent to the outcry by activists.”
Letsike concurred: “The government’s turnaround is, I think, largely due to the pressures put on it by human rights defenders locally and internationally.”
Praising the government’s decision, John Fisher, Human Rights Watch’s Geneva Director, said: “We welcome South Africa’s strong statement affirming that combating discrimination in all its forms is a constitutional commitment, and underlining South Africa’s support for measures to address violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Many civil society organisations, in South Africa and around the world, joined together to support this recognition that human rights are universal and indivisible. South Africa’s support for the operations of the independent expert will be crucial in fostering dialogue to address LGBT-related violence and discrimination on the continent and around the world.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian