Sexuality Policy Watch

A call to end all criminal penalties against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity: A historical victory

By Gloria Careaga*

In New York City on December 18th, 2008, 66 UN member states joined together for the first time ever to support a declaration that was presented by Argentina to the General Assembly. The declaration upholds “the principle of non-discrimination, which requires that human rights apply equally to every human being regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” In other words, it strongly calls for the decriminalization of same sex relations and urges UN member states to be “deeply concerned by violations of human rights and [committed to] fundamental freedoms based on sexual orientation or gender identity.” The text also mentions the Organization of American States’ Resolution on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” adopted in June, 2008. From a Latin American perspective it is also quite relevant that the declaration was read in the General Assembly by the Argentinean delegate.

This political victory is a step forward in the long global policy process that began with the resolution on human rights and sexual orientation tabled by Brazil in 2003 at the UN Commission of Human Rights. In 2006 — when the Commission had been dissolved and the newly created Human Rights Council was undergoing its institutional building process — a declaration on the same subject was presented by Norway and supported by 46 countries.

A number of activists from international and local organizations were present in New York City to attend the General Assembly session; they included ILGA, IGLHRC, Amnesty International, ARC International, Global Rights, Human Rights Watch, Inter-LGBT France, International Committee for IDAHO, Center for Women’s Global Leadership and COC Netherlands. These groups mobilized and pressured the governmental delegations to sign the declaration. This advocacy work was preceded by intensive work at local levels. Beginning in September 2008, a coordinated action began, with activists from around the world calling their respective governments to demand that they support the text and convince other countries to do the same.

As has happened before, macro political and economic trends and alliances influenced the negotiations and some countries were under heavy pressure from religious conservative sectors, such as the Vatican or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), to oppose the declaration. But even so, the result of the advocacy work was very positive.

One key aspect of this process is to be underlined. Whereas previous initiatives had been undertaken by individual countries, the drafting of the 2008 declaration was coordinated by a cross-regional group that included Brazil, Croatia, France, Gabon, Japan, the Netherlands, and Norway. It must also be noted that the text gained support from countries in regions worldwide — Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin American — even when support was not evenly shared across regions. From a Latin American perspective it is worth noting that Peru was the only country that refused to sign the declaration and presently local LGBT organizations are protesting against the Alan Garcia administration.

On the bright side, Cuba’s support for human rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity was a major breakthrough. It is also very interesting to observe that, at least in the case of Latin America, some countries signed the declaration at the very last moment not because they were fully committed to the text but because they did not want to be left out of sub-regional blocks. Paraguay, for instance, signed on so as not to be “out of Mercosur” and Nicaragua did the same as part of the so–called Bolivarian sub-group.

From a global perspective, it is really a shame that the US did not sign the declaration, although this is not exactly surprising and can be seen as a last diplomatic act of the Bush agenda. In contrast, the text was strongly supported by all European Union members, including Ireland, Malta and Poland, all of which are strongly influenced by the Vatican and have systematically expressed a conservative position with respect to sexual rights. The declaration was also openly supported by a number of Special Rapporteurs and by Navanetham Pillay, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This victory demonstrates that collaborative and coordinated efforts across networks able to link global and local levels can have good results. This declaration has also moved the debate on human rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity to a new phase of political understanding, since, from now on, sexuality and gender issues can no longer be qualified as an exclusively Northern agenda. This text is also a new tool to be used in advocacy work at both regional and local levels. At the end of the day, the many challenges we face in our strive to ensure the universal protection of human rights have provided us with a privileged opportunity to expand the rights of those who are persecuted and condemned because of their sexuality.

Read the UN Declaration >>

* Gloria Careaga is member of the SPW Steering Committee

:: Posted in 01/23/2009 ::

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content