African countries fail to block U.N. LGBT discrimination monitor

Kenyan gays and lesbians and others supporting their cause wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a rare protest, against Uganda's increasingly tough stance against homosexuality outside the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

In a victory for gay rights, the U.N. General Assembly voted again to appoint a new U.N. independent investigator who would monitor violence and discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

On Monday member countries voted 84 to 77 to appoint the monitor. A group of African countries tried to stop the appointment on Monday and in November. It was the bloc’s second attempt to derail the appointment. African countries led by Burkina Faso took issue with the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity are internationally protected human rights.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power rejected that notion in her remarks to the General Assembly advocating for countries to vote against the amendment.

“For our part, the United States believes that discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity is no different from discriminating against people for the color of their skin, for discriminating against them because of their sex, or because of their nationality,” said Power. “It is wrong. Such discrimination cuts against the very essence of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Seventy-three countries have laws that criminalize homosexuality. Nearly half of the countries are in Africa.

When the Human Rights Council began considering a resolution to create the role, coalitions of countries began lobbying for and against the resolution. Saudi Arabia and Nigeria tried unsuccessfully to stop the council’s vote. When the council voted July 1, the resolution passed 23 to 18, sending it to the General Assembly. Russia joined the African and Islamic countries, voting against the resolution in the council vote.

After the General Assembly vote, Russia, the 57-country bloc Organization of Islamic Cooperation and several African countries said that they would not cooperate with appointee Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand.

In another move to limit LGBT inclusion, Russia managed to strike language from the Security Council’s statement of thanks to outgoing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

The original draft statement from the 15-member council said, “It is thanks to you, Mr. Secretary-General, that women, young people, and the LGBT community have been heard and assisted, and today their voices sound louder and stronger in this headquarters and around the world.”

It was replaced with a more general appreciation for assisting the “most vulnerable or marginalized.”

Russia also sought to overturn a rule change by Ban that extended benefits to same-sex spouses of U.N. staff, but was unsuccessful.

Despite the strong opposition to LGBT rights on so many fronts, Muntarbhorn’s work as the U.N. independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity is a major achievement during Ban’s tenure. The work of independent experts help hold countries and groups accountable for human rights violations.

“The United States believes that discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity is no different from discriminating against people for the color of their skin, for discriminating against them because of their sex, or because of their nationality. It is wrong,” said Power. “This is not an issue of the North trying to impose its values on the South; it is an issue of respecting the dignity and human rights of all people, everywhere.”

However, with an upcoming presidential transition in the United States, Power will soon be replaced. President-elect Donald Trump announced that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is set to take up the position as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley has weathered criticism from conservatives for not taking a strong stand against gay rights. At the same time, some rights groups are concerned about her record on transgender rights as governor.

“Haley opposed a federal directive that protects the rights of transgendered men and women as to what bathrooms they choose and has sided with the anti-LGBTQ religious right on issues specific to members of the transgender community. And, she brings absolutely no international diplomatic experience to this post. That is highly problematic,” said the Center for Health and Gender Equity in a statement following Haley’s nomination announcement.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.