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Reflections and thoughts on the Passing of the follow up Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity [SOGI] at the United Nations Human Rights Council

CAL Director, Dawn Cavanagh, shared some thoughts with AWID [Association for Women’s Rights in Development] FRIDAY FILE about the process, and substance behind the recent passing of the follow up Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at 27th Session of the United Nation’s Human Right Council.

This interview was first published on the AWID website.

All copyright enquiries should be directed towards AWID.   

The Right To Autonomy Over Our Bodies And Loves: The Resolution On Human Rights, Sexual Orientation And Gender Identity Furthers Dialogue

FRIDAY FILE – AWID spoke to Dawn Cavanagh* of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) in South Africa and Sexual Rights Initiative (SRI), about the significance of the resolution on Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity recently adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The resolution follows the first ever UN resolution adopted on SOGI three years ago. -By Shareen Gokal

AWID: The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on SOGI in 2011, why was a follow-up resolution important?

Dawn Cavanagh (DC): It is important for a number of reasons. I will focus on one that has implications for many other “sensitive” or “controversial” issues. There is an understanding and a tradition at the Human Rights Council (HRC) that resolutions come up every two years and that there is a systematic building on what has been adopted in earlier resolutions.

It is bad precedent to have any resolution and certainly one on sexual orientation and gender identity, to have missed the two year mark and then the three year mark and not to have any follow up Resolution. Moreover, it opens up the door to us succumbing to leadership failure on key human rights issues at the HRC.

For some of us the passing of this second resolution was an assertion that this issue is still important; still a human rights issue and an issue that the HRC needs to address. It was a way to assert and insist on our right to freedom and autonomy over our bodies and lives and to resist the growing hostility and “backlash” by state and non-state actors worldwide. It was about autonomy over our bodies and lives as women, as sex workers, as people living with HIV and as gender non-conforming people, amongst others… It was time. Even with a watered down text.

AWID: This resolution was tabled by Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil, what is the significance of this?

DC: There was an allegation that the Latin American states were leading on this Resolution due to pressure from the global north. However, Sonia Corrêa, Research Associate at Associação Brasileira Interdisciplinar de AIDS (ABIA) and co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch, has been sharing with us the long track record of Latin American states taking progressive stances on sexual orientation and gender identity in many inter-governmental and multi-lateral spaces. We know that a few years ago Brazil took the bold step of tabling a Resolution on human rights and sexual orientation at the then Human Rights Commission now Human Rights Council. It was withdrawn without a vote, but in June 2011 Brazil co-sponsored the Resolution 17/19 on Human Rights and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

The Resolution was led by Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil when it became clear that South Africa was not planning to bring a second Resolution in this session.  This had the effect of helping to diffuse the erroneous claims that sexual orientation and gender identity is a global north issue.

AWID: What were some of the most significant compromises made to gather more support for the resolution?

DC: There were so many compromises in the process of actually negotiating the text that was tabled. It was a minimal call right from the beginning – essentially for a follow up Report to the one HRC report published in November 2011 entitled “Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity” and a report every two years thereafter.

The imperative was to have this report address root causes of the violence and discrimination worldwide based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The need for a report that looked at patriarchy and multiple and intersecting causes and oppressions was erased before the ink was even applied. The inclusion of such language, even if it was, in the end negotiated out of the text, was important to insert these ideas into the dialogue.

The already weak and watered down text was diluted even more in the negotiations. This was due in part to the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC) who insisted that the core group either scrap the resolution entirely, or replace any reference to sexual orientation and gender identity in the text with language from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) to take account of the various forms of discrimination and violence based on race, sex, poverty etc. The OIC’s tactics along with an apparent lack of support from other members of the Council resulted in a really minimal text, the commitment to a Report in 2015 (but not regular reporting every two years), “to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination, in application of existing international human rights law and standards” on sexual orientation and gender identity[1].

From a feminist point of view, the loss was on language that could act as a credible bridge between pure and raw identity politics and a broader sexuality; and gender lens that includes intersectionality and the idea of gender expression, as opposed to just gender identity.

AWID: Where did pressure against the resolution come from and what arguments were used against the resolution? 

DC: The arguments were not that much different to those used when other issues of bodily autonomy are raised at the Council: That sexual orientation and gender identity is a polarizing and divisive issue and hence, dangerous to push ahead with without more dialogue and more time.  Not surprisingly, the issue of sovereignty was also raised – essentially that states cannot impose this issue on other states. There were assertions that the resolution violates ethical, cultural and religious values of states and their national laws. And of course there was resistance to the idea of a Report being prepared and tabled every two years.

The polarization at the Council roughly on global north/south lines definitely infuses dialogue on sexual orientation and gender identity – or resistance to such dialogue. Global south states have a position that global north states pay more attention and invest more systematically in civil and political rights rather than economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. This fuelled arguments about whether to vote for the resolution. Here too, we understand that resistance by some global south states to the threats of or actual sanctions related to positions on sexual orientation and gender identity meant that some states considered voting no.

AWID: The resolution was passed with 25 in favour, 14 against, and 7 abstentions. The vote was expected to be much closer. What do you think accounted for this increase in support?

DC: There was massive advocacy and pressure on swing states and on states expected to vote against the resolution.  This came both from states supporting the resolution and from civil society, in country, in the capitals and in Geneva. An interesting dynamic also emerged which added positive pressure from New York where the General Assembly was simultaneously underway and some progressive positions were being taken on sexual and reproductive rights. Tactically, it was key to expose the contradictions to the ways in which some states articulated their positions on sexuality in the two spaces, the General Assembly and the HRC. 

We know that we are on the side of justice. Further, it is hard to overlook, ignore or justify violence against anyone, even if their choices and decisions about exercising their autonomy lean away from your own views of desire and pleasure, intimacy and gender, sexuality and power.

And of course we don’t know the whole story. What happened behind closed doors between states is always an unknown factor. Were there trade offs? What was traded for shifts in positions on the Resolution? Whatever the case, there were global south states which shifted from voting against the resolution to abstaining, and others shifted from abstentions to a yes vote.  The final vote reflected and affirmed an incremental approach where we build on what has gone before.

AWID: What will this resolution do to strengthen commitments of states to live up to their obligations and protect the human rights of all people without distinction?

DC: In our view, the Resolution will do nothing to strengthen commitments of states if the commitment is not already there. It really is us who will have to do the work to make this happen on the ground in countries – people on the frontlines. As always, the work has to be done by those who have been and continue to take the risks as they resist oppression, confront violence and hatred and fight, at risk of their own bodies and lives for change. And the solidarity of other players including states and donors who have different spheres of power and influence will be key in this process.

AWID: What substantive impact do you think this resolution will make in the lives of the people you work with in your organization?

DC: Mostly None.  In the first place, knowing the change process and what is takes to make happen the kind of shifts needed to impact substantively on the lives of ordinary people, it is clear that a resolution on its own cannot make a substantive impact. Some resolutions, by the nature of the action they call for, have more potential to contribute to change. An example is Resolution on Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity and Human Rights passed in 2011 that enabled, amongst other things, guidelines to be drafted as a contribution to changes on policy, institutional and programmatic levels. But this resolution did not achieve this.

What it did was enable – or even force – an intensified dialogue on one of the many important sexuality and gender related human rights issues. This in itself is a crucial step towards transformation. If it is true that contestations are key moments of political repositioning of states; and crystallization of positions [for and against] are an important incremental step, then at some point this and similar Resolutions can and will contribute to substantive changes in the lives of people.

What the resolution also did was to give hope. Hope that the work we are all doing on bodily autonomy and intersectionality is not in vain. Hope that states are slowly beginning to see this issue as a human rights issue. This resolution is a small light at the end of the tunnel that our demands will be met – demands for erotic justice and the right to autonomy over our bodies and lives. And loves!!!

*Dawn would like to thank the following people for their contributions: Sonia Correa and Stuart Halford of the Sexual Rights Initiative

[1] For more information on negotiations at the UN please refer to : United Nations – Negotiating Sexual Rights and Sexual Orientation at the UN  pp 311, Françoise Girard