Foreign Correspondent from the 23rd Session of UN Human Rights Council

It’s time for principled leadership to combat senseless discrimination

A draconian bill passed by the Nigerian House of Representatives is yet another example of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity that is widespread and invidious throughout the world. If enacted, the bill will criminalise same-sex relationships and the ‘aiding or abetting’ of same-sex relationships. It would also forbid the formation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) groups, and even criticism against the bill itself.

Against this backdrop, it is profoundly disappointing that Member States of the UN Human Rights Council have not exercised the principled leadership necessary to ensure that the world’s peak human rights body condemn such flagrant violations at its current session in Geneva.

Civil society organisations had a strong and well-founded expectation that the Council would act during its 23rd session. It is a year since the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a report to the Council documenting the widespread incidence and devastating impact of human rights violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, including killings, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest and systemic discrimination. And it is more than two years since years the Council adopted its first, and to date only, resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity – a resolution that many States have failed to implement.

With the Council deferring meaningful action on sexual orientation and gender identity until at least September – at which point many NGOs hope and expect it to establish a procedure or mechanism to ensure sustained and systematised attention to violations of LGBTI rights – there are a range of steps that States can take in the meantime.

Firstly, States should amend or repeal laws – such as that proposed in Nigeria – which criminalise homosexuality or same-sex relations. Such laws violate both the international law prohibition against discrimination and the rights to freedom of expression and association. Such laws also serve to stigmatise same-sex relations and increase the incidence of homophobic violence and harassment. A coalition of Nigerian human rights defenders, in a statement released earlier this week, condemned the bill as likely to lead to an ‘increased rate of harassment, witch-hunt and vindictive accusations which will impact on every Nigerian’. (While homosexuality was decriminalised in Australia largely during the 1980s it is of note that gay men today remain haunted by the shame and stigma of past criminal convictions for gay sex offences.)

Secondly, States should enact and strengthen laws to prohibit and redress discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Such discrimination is as reprehensible as that based on race, religion or nationality and is deserving of at least the same level of legal recognition and protection. (Australia is on the cusp of enacting federal legislation that will, for the first time, introduce the new grounds of 'sexual orientation', 'gender identity' and 'intersex status' into federal anti-discrimination law - this represents a long overdue but verywelcome advance for the rights of LGBTI people in Australia.)

Thirdly, States must take positive action to prevent, investigate and prosecute all forms of discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. (Such action in Australia could include supporting social marketing and education campaigns such as "No To Homophobia" that work to shift attitudes and behaviours and increase reporting rates for those suffering discrimination and abuse.)

The UN Human Rights Council will rise at the end of this week and commence its 24th session in September. At that session, the Council must adopt a response – or at least a concrete road map – to ensure that there is regular and systematised reporting on LGBTI rights. Such an approach is necessary to document violations, identify protection gaps, highlight best practice and provide some redress for victims of these senseless violations.

Dr Heather Collister leads ISHR’s work to protect LGBT rights and support LGBT human rights defenders and Anna Brown leads the HRLC's work on LGBTI rights.