The time has come

The time has come

The HRLC’s Anna Brown reports on her recent advocacy work in Geneva and the passage of the crucially-important resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity by the UN Human Rights Council.

“Expressing grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity”. Such concern would hardly be controversial in Australia but to states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia these words spell the beginning of the end, a slippery slope towards creating "special rights" that pose a threat to their cultural, religious and political values.

Hence the reason I found myself in sunny Geneva at a meeting of the world's human rights parliament this September, with a bunch of other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex activists from around the world. It was crunch time. A number of resolutions were to be put to the vote, including an all-important resolution entitled “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. 

This was only the second time a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity had been presented to the UN Human Rights Council. The first resolution in 2011 was, in some respects, a fortunate accident of history. Since that time, supporters of LGBTI rights have been working to get these issues on the Council agenda for sustained and systemic attention, in the same way that racism, women’s rights and other issues are reported on, debated and discussed on an ongoing basis.

The leadership of any initiative on sexual orientation and gender identity issues is very important, to avoid the risk of these issues somehow being viewed as part of a purely Global North agenda. Finally, more than three years after the 2011 resolution, Latin America provided the answer. Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Uruguay stood up to the plate and presented this second sexual orientation and gender identity resolution, with help and support from many other like-minded countries around the world, including Australia.

By the time I arrived in Geneva there had been a steady stream of LGBTI activists treading the floorboards of the Palais des Nations in the two weeks prior. In Aussie rules football terms we were flooding the forward fifty. Our job? Convincing a majority of the 47 member states of the Council to vote in favour of the resolution. Led by our expert colleagues in Geneva-based NGOs that specialize in HRC advocacy, we worked closely with friendly states in Geneva and activists on the ground in capital cities to lobby and influence states. We worked to stave off hostile amendments to the wording of the resolution and ultimately to secure a majority of votes in favour of its adoption. A conversation in a hall way, a well-timed email to an embassy office, an article appearing in papers back home – any of these could mean the difference in shifting a "no" vote to an abstention or an abstention to a "yes". We also made formal written and oral statements to the Council, reminding states that the world was watching and they had a duty to act and help those around the world suffering persecution simply because of who they love or who they are.

It was both inspiring and humbling for me to work with incredible activists from around the world –from gay men in the Philippines and Thailand, to lesbians from Kenya and South Africa, to trans men from Chile. Our level of collaboration and camaraderie was matched only by the depth of our shared commitment. And the hard work paid off. When a record majority of states voted in favour of the resolution, you could feel the emotion in the room. We cried with happiness, we hugged (each other and every friendly diplomat in sight) and, naturally, danced up an international storm until we got on our planes back home. For those of us lucky enough to be part of this moment of history it was an unforgettable experience, but just one step towards achieving equality for our communities globally. In other words, watch this space. 

Anna Brown is Director of Advocacy and Strategic Litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre.