The UN Combating Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
“As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity… Where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day”
— UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, New York, 10 December 2010.
Every day, around the world, individuals suffer discrimination, vilification and violent attack because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI). In more than 70 countries, homosexuality remains a criminal offence, exposing gay men and lesbians to the risk of arrest, imprisonment and, in some cases, torture or the death penalty.
While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and United Nations human rights treaties do not explicitly mention “sexual orientation” or “gender identity”, they do establish an obligation on the part of States to protect people from discrimination, including on the basis of “sex … or other status.” UN treaty bodies, whose role is to monitor and support States’ compliance with treaty obligations, have issued a series of decisions or general comments all confirming that such language is sufficiently broad as to encompass “sexual orientation,” effectively establishing sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination under relevant human rights treaties. This view has also been endorsed by 17 special procedures (independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to monitor and report on various human rights issues), as well as by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Secretary-General.
In a landmark speech on the subject delivered on Human Rights Day (10 December) 2010, the Secretary-General noted that “As men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. When individuals are attacked, abused or imprisoned because of their sexual orientation, we must speak out…” He pledged to put himself “on the line,” promising “to rally support for the decriminalization of homosexuality everywhere in the world.”
Activities of the human rights office
OHCHR is committed to working with States, national human rights institutions and civil society to achieve progress towards the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and further measures to protect people from violence and discrimination on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While this work is still in its infancy within OHCHR, planned activities include:
- Privately raising concerns and putting forward recommendations for reform in the context of dialogue with Governments.
- Monitoring and bringing to light patterns of human rights violations affecting LGBTI persons in public reporting, including reporting produced by OHCHR field presences.
- Engaging in public advocacy of decriminalization and other measures necessary to strengthen human rights protection for LGBTI persons, including through participation in events, speeches and press statements and newspaper articles.
- Working with UN partners to implement various public information and related educational activities intended to counter homophobia and violence motivated by animosity towards LGBTI persons.
- Providing support for the special procedures mandate-holders in the context of their fact-finding activities and confidential communications with Government.
- Supporting the human rights treaty bodies, a number of which have addressed the issue of discrimination linked to sexual orientation in previous general comments and concluding observations and continue to highlight steps that individual States should take in order to comply with their international treaty obligations in this respect.
- Providing support for the Universal Periodic Review, which provides a forum for concerns regarding the rights of LGBTI persons to be aired and for recommendations to be developed.
The Office’s work on LGBTI human rights is coordinated from OHCHR-New York.
1. Human Rights Committee (inter alia, Toonen v. Australia, 1994, Young v. Australia, 2003, Joslin v New Zealand, 2002, and X v. Colombia, 2007); Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (General Comment No. 14 of 2000, General Comment No. 15 of 2002, General Comment No. 18 of 2005); Committee on the Rights of the Child (General Comment No. 4 of 2003); Committee against Torture (General Comment No. 2 of 2008); Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (General Comment No. 28 of 2010)