The UN's New LGBT Rights Watchdog May Be About To Lose His Job

The General Assembly will vote next week on an unprecedented measure to undo the newly created position of "independent expert" on LGBT rights.

The full membership of the United Nations is due to vote Tuesday on a resolution designed to torpedo a newly created position for a watchdog on LGBT rights.

The position is formally known as an "independent expert" and has a mandate to monitor "violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” The office was created in June by a vote of the Human Rights Council, whose members are appointed by the General Assembly but operates independently. In September, the council's president announced the position would be filled by Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor who has previously served as special rapporteur on North Korea and is a commissioner on the Independent International Commission of inquiry on Syria.

Supporters of the independent expert position — also called a "mandate" in UN lingo — say Tuesday's planned vote is more than an effort to prevent LGBT rights from being considered as a human rights issue at the UN. It represents an unprecedented effort to politicize a human rights issue in a way that could weaken the whole framework for safeguarding human rights in the international system.

The "proposal threatens the authority of the Human Rights Council and the integrity of the entire special procedures system" that governs the body, said one diplomat who works on human rights issues at the UN who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press. If the General Assembly "is going to try to re-litigate decisions taken by the Council then any number of other mandates could be unpicked."

The resolution to be voted on Tuesday was introduced into the General Assembly by Sierra Leone on behalf of the Group of African States. The proposal's text technically proposes to "defer consideration" of the Human Rights Council's resolution creating the LGBT watchdog "in order to allow time for further consultations to determine the legal basis" for the position. It will be voted on by the full membership of the General Assembly during the proceedings of what’s called the Third Committee, which handles human rights questions.

But there's nothing in the UN's rules that gives the General Assembly a role in the "consideration" of creating positions to look into specific human rights issues. Usually, the president of the Human Rights Council submits a report to the General Assembly that includes notice of new mandates but the body does not vote on them.

Many controversial rapporteurs and independent experts are routinely appointed, including ones investigating human rights abuses in Iran or violence targeting human rights defenders. Only once before, say diplomats and human rights advocates, has the General Assembly voted on an individual position created by the Human Rights Council, but that concerned procedural questions about which branch of the UN the position was to be housed in rather than the subject matter the position was to focus on.

"The reason they’re doing it is to single out this one mandate and cast aspersions on its credibility," said Akshaya Kumar, deputy United Nations director for Human Rights Watch. "That would both undermine the bigger system about how [Human Rights Council appointments] work all the time."

The language in the resolution questioning the "legal basis" for creating an LGBT watchdog is especially "insidious," added Human Rights Watch's LGBT Program Director Graeme Reid, because "the implication is that LGBT rights don’t belong in the human rights system at all." Only a handful of UN resolutions mention LGBT issues, and LGBT rights opponents contend that sexual orientation and gender identity are not matters covered by international law.

If it passes, it could set up a complicated showdown between the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Vitit Muntarbhorn has already taken up the position, and it is not clear that this resolution would put a halt to his work even if it passes. Neither Muntarbhorn nor a spokesperson for the presidency of the Human Rights Commission responded to requests for comment for this story.

And the resolution stands a very good chance of passing. The resolution was introduced by the 54-member Africa Group without any dissenting members. That group includes South Africa, which introduced the first LGBT rights resolution in the Human Rights Council in 2011 but withheld its support for the creation of the LGBT watchdog position. The resolution is also assumed to have the support of almost every nation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — which would add at least 20 additional votes for the resolution. (Albania is the only member of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation that supports the LGBT watchdog position.) Russia and Belarus have also been leading opponents of efforts to promote LGBT rights inside the UN.

The resolution only needs a simple majority — or 97 votes — to pass.

The vote, said a US diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, "is hard to predict."

"We certainly take it seriously," he said.

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