3 min

UN debates human rights for gays and lesbians worldwide

The high-stakes discussions wind up this month

Credit: Capital Xtra files

There’s a debate going on now that matters to everyone. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) is currently considering, at its 60th session in Geneva, Switzerland, a resolution banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The groundbreaking resolution, which tackles violence and prejudice against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, and calls on UN member states to promote and uphold the universality of human rights for all people regardless of their sexual orientation, was put forward last year by the Brazil delegation to the UNCHR. It was supported by Canada, the European Union and Australia, but it was postponed until this year because of the vehement protests of the Vatican, Islamic Conference countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and other countries like Zimbabwe, Ireland, China, India and the United States.

This year, the resolution is on the agenda for discussion. If passed, it will be the first UNCHR resolution to connect the full range of human rights to sexual orientation, and to condemn discrimination on its basis. The US Christian Right, the Vatican and the Islamic Conference countries have organized against the resolution. Amnesty International, the Brussels-based International Gay and Lesbian Organization and the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) have called upon the 53-nation Commission to adopt the resolution, affirming the universality of human rights.

But suddenly, in the midst of all the debate, Brazil has asked the UNCHR to postpone the resolution.

“Brazil has been under vicious attack,” says Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC. “The level of hostility towards this amendment is breathtaking. Countries that are against the resolution have threatened Brazil with trade sanctions. No one at the UN is standing up against this bullying. This is totally unheard of and relatively unprecedented procedurally. Brazil is backing away, but what does this mean? There are lots of tactical questions on whether they even have the option of postponing.”

Meanwhile, Brazil is trying to find other supporters to champion the resolution. This cannot be Canada – we are not on the commission this year.

“It’s important for countries like Canada that are not on the commission to publicly state their support for the resolution,” adds Ettelbrick. “People need to ask their governments to stand up and speak out.”

According to the IGLHRC, one of the key countries to target in this mobilization effort is the US, which has been quiet on the debate. This is hardly surprising given the heated disputes over same-sex marriage south of the border.

“There has been increasing hazing of gays and lesbians in the US,” states Ettelbrick. “If this happened anywhere but the US, the west would be squawking about human rights violations. In our case, other countries have been relatively silent on the matter.”

The US media has been focusing its lens on images of protest signs that read: “The right to marriage is a human right.” By throwing “human rights” into the mix, American gays and lesbians have increased the stakes. The illegality of same-sex marriage has become a human rights violation. Even so, President Bush’s response has been to back a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage for 30 million US citizens.

Compare the US to Canada. As of Mar 19, Quebec became the third Canadian province to make same-sex marriage legal. Same-sex couples can now marry in pro-vinces that represent over 70 percent of Canada’s population. In addition, it is now expected that other Canadian provinces will follow suit. The five-judge Quebec court ruled unanimously that the Ontario decision applies to all Canadian provinces, since marriage is a federal issue.

If the resolution on sexual orientation were passed, it would not be a self-executing tool for LGBT human rights in the spirit of a treaty or a covenant. The resolution is closer to a statement of principle, and provides tools for advocates in their own countries to rally their own governments.

“The politics about the resolution are as much about encroaching Westernism as they are about gay rights,” Ettelbrick explains. “Many African countries have a strong reaction to this issue. They find homosexuality wrong and morally repugnant. They are also vehement that the social structures of the west should not reach their countries, even if the economic ones have.”

In effect, nobody knows what is going to happen with the resolution.

According to Ettelbrick, “The drama will limp along for the next several weeks until the commission ends on Apr 25.”