African civil society celebrates continued recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity at UN Human Rights Council

African Men for Sexual Health and Rights [AMSHeR], the Coalition of African Lesbians [CAL], and the Demand Accountability SA Campaign recognise and celebrate the adoption of a resolution, led by Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil – on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” resolution [A/HRC/27/L27 Rev.1] by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 26th September 2014.

25 States, including South Africa, voted in favour of the resolution, 14 States voted against it, and 7 States abstained from voting. One State was absent during the vote. The resolution requests ‘the High Commissioner to update the report [A/HRC/19/41] with a view to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination, in application of existing international human rights law and standards, and to present it to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-ninth session’.

This report will ensure that the issues are brought into the main plenary session of the Human Rights Council and that a formal dialogue is held on these issues. The need to sustain and strengthen dialogue on sexuality and gender related rights is key to advancing rights and so the report is a welcome product that will contribute to such dialogue.

In 2011 South Africa, with co-sponsorship from Brazil and Norway, led a resolution [17/19] on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity which was adopted at the Council in June 2011. Its adoption led to the first official United Nations report [A/HRC/19/41] titled Report of the HC – Study documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This resolution was affirmed in a vote of 23 to 19 States, with three abstentions, indicating their recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity as a human rights issue and denouncing violence and discrimination on these grounds.

More than three years after Resolution 17/19, the oppression of people of non-conforming sexual orientation and gender identity and expression has worsened all over world. In Africa, intolerance against people who engage in same sex relations, those who are gender non-conforming, intersex people and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-diverse has manifested in the form of retrogressive legislation that seeks to limit the rights and freedoms of many African people. Such legislation has been introduced in Nigeria and Uganda and similar moves are underway in Gambia and Chad to do the same.

Phillipa Tucker of AIDS Accountability International asserted that states have an obligation to protect all rights for all people and cannot allow violence and discrimination against anyone to be justified or excused. Other activists slated the use of religion and tradition to deny all people the right to peace and safety: “We will not accept states imposing their own religious beliefs on others. We insist on the rights of everyone to freedom of belief and religion and at the same time will not sit back and watch states impose the religious beliefs on those who hold opposing beliefs,” said Ingrid Lynch from the Triangle Project.

Kene Esom of AMSHeR stated that “the levels of violence and discrimination in Africa are of particular concern to our organisations and African states must fulfil their obligations to stop all forms of violence and this includes violence based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. In April this year, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted the first ever resolution focussed on sexual orientation and gender identity within the African human rights system calling on states to end the violence. This resolution and the resolution adopted [today] at the Human Rights Council all contribute to a shift in the culture of impunity when it comes to the human rights of people who are non-conforming in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity”.

The recent vote by African states included a yes vote from South Africa, four abstentions from Burkina Faso, Congo, Namibia and Sierra Leone; with Algeria, Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon and Kenya all voting against the resolution. In a not-unexpected backlash, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), represented by Pakistan, as well as Bahrain, Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Malaysia, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, proposed amendments to the resolution, intended to weaken the provisions of the resolution and to remove direct reference to sexual orientation and gender identity. Namibia withdrew their co-sponsorship of these troubling proposed amendments before they came to the vote. The amendments were all defeated.

“Collectively, the defeat of the proposed amendments, the growing number of abstentions since June 2011 and the explanation of the vote by Botswana are all seen as small steps forward. These shifts are understood to come out of strengthening behind the scenes and more public dialogue emerging from, as an example, the Universal Periodic Review [UPR] of all states as well as strong and effective campaigning by civil society in these countries and in intergovernmental spaces” was the view of Sally Shackleton from the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce [SWEAT]. “We must collectively now invest more heavily and responsibly in national level organising and building civil society capability to step up and sustain the work at the national level, even as we intensify our work within the international human rights system,” said Shackelton.

Activists in Africa now look forward to the South African government, through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation [DIRCO], hosting the long awaited seminar ‘Ending Violence based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression in Africa’. This Regional Seminar is a critical step in creating space for dialogue on rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity in the African region. South Africa must fulfil its commitment in this regard.

Members of the Demand Accountability Campaign:

  1. AIDS Accountability International
  2. Access Chapter 2
  3. African Men for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
  4. African Sex Workers Association
  5. Coalition of African Lesbians
  6. Durban Gay and Lesbian Centre
  7. Forum for the Empowerment of Women
  8. Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action
  9. One in Nine Campaign
  10. People Opposing Women Abuse
  11. Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce
  12. Sonke Gender Justice
  13. South African National AIDS Council – Civil Society Forum
  14. Triangle Project

For comments please contact:

  • Kene Esom African – Men for Sexual Health & Rights [AMSHeR] Tel: +27-11 242 6801
  • Dawn Cavanagh – Coalition of African Lesbians [CAL] Tel: +27 71 104 1718
  • Lucinda van den Heever – Sonke Gender Justice Tel: +27-21-423 7088