South Africans can hold their heads up high. The historic South African-led resolution to combat violence and discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation has been adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The groundbreaking resolution expresses “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity”.
It further requests that the UN High Commissioner commission a study to be finalised by December 2011 to document discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity in all regions of the world.
The study must look at how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The resolution also calls for a panel discussion to be held by the UNHRC next year, informed by the facts contained in the study and to have constructive, informed and transparent dialogue on the issue of discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Said to be the first time that a resolution specifically affirming the rights of LGBT people has been adopted by the UN, the resolution received 23 votes for, 19 votes against and three abstentions on Friday in Geneva.
Nine of the 13 African countries that sit on the UNHRC voted against the resolution (Angola, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Mauritania, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda) and two, Burkina Faso and Zambia, abstained.
The resolution generated considerable debate in the Council, with South Africa being criticised for introducing the resolution by other African nations and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
Jerry Matjila, South Africa’s representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, said, during the introduction of the resolution, that the document did not seek to impose values on member states but sought to initiate a dialogue which would contribute to ending discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
He acknowledged that while non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was constitutionally protected in South Africa, there “were still challenges relating to violence against such individuals” in his country.
Matjila also noted that although South Africa was a predominantly Christian society, all religions were treated the same; and although South Africa was predominantly a black country, all racial groups enjoyed equal rights.
The United Nations was “the common parliament for the international community” and as such it should discuss complex and difficult issues, added Matjila.
“A historic moment to highlight the human rights abuses and violations that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face around the world based solely on who they are and whom they love” – Hillary Clinton.
The representative from Nigeria argued that African countries and “more than 90 per cent of the African people did not support the resolution”.
Saudi Arabia’s representative said the draft resolution was not in line with internationally agreed human rights principles and that it was not appropriate to impose these values on other countries. He insisted that cultural and religious considerations should be taken into account.
Bahrain, which also voted against the resolution, claimed that it was an attempt to create “new standards and new human rights” by “misinterpreting” the existing international human rights standards. He insisted that these are issues “based on personal decisions and are not fundamental human rights”.
Other countries that voted against the resolution included Bangladesh, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the adoption of the resolution. “This represents a historic moment to highlight the human rights abuses and violations that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face around the world based solely on who they are and whom they love,” she said in a statement.
The initiative of the South African government in drafting the resolution is of particular significance given the conflicting approach the country has taken on the issue of LGBT rights at the UN in the past. In November 2010 it voted for the removal of a reference to sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution on extrajudicial killings but later changed its stance.
Dawn Cavanagh from the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) praised South Africa for offering “progressive leadership, after years of troubling and inconsistent positions on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity”.
She added: “Simultaneously, the government has set a standard for themselves in international spaces. We look forward to contributing to and supporting sustained progressive leadership by this government and seeing the end of the violations we face daily.”
South Africa was also applauded by ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), with the organisation’s Co-Secretary-General Gloria Careaga describing the occasion as “a great day” and “a historical step forward”.
ILGA’s other Co-Secretary-General, Renato Sabbadini, said that the resolution was an “extraordinary” one for acknowledging “the existence of violence against LGBTI people” and noted that “it opens a very promising path for future actions”.
The DA’s Ian Ollis, the openly-gay South African MP who recently spoke in support of the resolution at an informal meeting of the UNHRC in Geneva, said that he “was very excited” at the news that the resolution had been adopted.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva
“This is a first. Before, the UN couldn’t take action on LGBT rights because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was not officially acknowledged as a human rights issue, which it is now,” he said.
Ollis, along with the DA, welcomed the government’s support for LGBT rights in the international arena, but noted that its openly homophobic high-commissioner in Uganda, Jon Qwelane, remains in his position despite recently being found guilty of hate speech against gays and lesbians.
The DA called on the South African government “to extend the decisiveness it has shown at the UNHRC to its own domestic affairs, by recalling Mr Qwelane, and replacing him with a candidate who embraces the values on which our constitutional democracy is built”.
According to ILGA, as of May 2011, homosexuality is punished with imprisonment or corporal punishment in 76 countries and five territorial entries and the death penalty in five countries and parts of Nigeria and