Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) rights continue to divide UN member states, but LGBT groups are celebrating a minor victory at the United Nations General Assembly. Last Tuesday the GA adopted the term “gender identity” alongside “sexual orientation” for the first time in one of its resolutions.
LGBT rights first gained a normative foothold in the General Assembly in 2004 through a biannual resolution on Extrajudicial, Summary, and Arbitrary Executions with the introduction of the term “sexual orientation” as one of the specific grounds of extrajudicial killings condemned alongside race, ethnicity and religion. Now “gender identity” has been added to the list.
The resolution was adopted by 108 votes to 1, with 65 abstentions, in a meeting characterized by an unusual display of animosity among UN member states. The customarily ordered UN proceedings were disrupted by delegations speaking out of turn and confusion about UN voting protocols.
The Organization for Islamic Conference tried to delete the new terms from the resolution through an amendment introduced by the United Arab Emirates. But they only secured 44 votes in support, less than the full membership of the international organization made up of 57 states from Asia and Africa.
African countries that supported the deletion of the term from the resolution in 2010 abstained this year. The African group asked for time, as they scuttled around the UN meeting room, unable to find agreement within the group for the deletion of the term.
Frustration got the better of some delegates. At one point, a delegate from Sweden, who has sponsored the resolution since 2004, began violently drumming her microphone to interrupt a statement by the Egyptian delegate. The Egyptian diplomat had raised a procedural question on whether the Swedish delegation should be allowed to make another statement at that time.
Delegations that supported the new terms insisted that the resolution only had to do with the “right to life” of everyone, and that it was necessary to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” because it was an especially vulnerable group.
Delegations that opposed the new terms forcefully condemned extrajudicial killings, but objected to the terms fearing their introduction would undermine the universal application of human rights law and recognize LGBT rights more broadly.
The Egyptian delegation was the most vocal in opposing the introduction of the new terms. Their statement described the introduction of the new terms as an “attempt to impose undefined concepts or notions that have never been defined in international law or documents”, rejecting the term as unenforceable because it is “based on subjective personal preferences.”
The United States also abstained from voting on the resolution but only because of a paragraph that appeared to associate capital punishment with extrajudicial killings. Later in the day Ambassador Susan Rice apparently sought to appease LGBT groups by tweeting that “We will not allow the remarkable progress the #UN has made on #LGBT issues in the last four years to be rolled back.”
While the terms “sexual orientation and gender identity” found inclusion in this resolution on the practice of extrajudicial killings – a practice that is universally condemned by UN member states – support for a standing resolution on LGBT rights remains a challenge at the UN General Assembly. The United States delegation promised such a resolution in 2010, but as of yet they have been unable to secure sufficient support for it among UN member states.