Several major breakthroughs in the promotion of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have occurred through United Nations mechanisms. From the worldwide multimedia Free & Equal campaign to LGBT-related resolutions and reports in the Human Rights Council to the public support of such figures as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights, the UN system has extended the protection of human rights to include LGBT people as never before.
One largely unnoticed influence contributing to these developments has been the UN LGBT Core Group, a wide network of countries and civil society organizations that aims to ensure a place for “SOGI” (sexual orientation and gender identity) issues on the UN agenda; to promote coordination and strategizing across countries in the Global North and South; and to prompt awareness of grievous human-rights violations against LGBT people (as well as those with intersex status).
The next major activities of the LGBT Core Group are being held in New York on and around Dec. 10, Human Rights Day.
The current member states of the group are diverse: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Colombia, Chile, Croatia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Japan, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the United States and Uruguay. The European Union is also included; most recently, Albania joined in the newly created status of “observer,” making it the first majority-Muslim state in the group.
New members are admitted only in pairs of countries from the Global North and Global South to achieve balanced representation; therefore, the absence of a particular state from the group does not necessarily connote a lack of commitment to LGBT issues by that government. Levels of participation in the group may also vary over time. The US, for example, did not engage with the group during the Bush administration, but during the Obama years it has emerged as a leading voice within the group and worldwide on LGBT issues, including through the appointment of its first-ever special envoy focused on LGBT rights.
There is no precise analogy to the LGBT Core Group in other parts of the UN system. As an informal body, it most closely resembles the various “friends of” and “contact group” configurations that have proliferated since the mid-1990s, facilitating peacemaking in conflict zones; examples include the International Contact Group on Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Group of Friends of Mediation.
The LGBT Core Group, however, is organizationally and operationally distinct in a number of respects. First, it targets a worldwide persecuted minority rather than a specific military conflict, as do most other informal UN working groups. Second, it functions on a continuing basis, partly because LGBT and intersex rights have not been systematically taken up by any other organs of the UN. Third, involvement is not limited to member states.
In addition to the European Union, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights participates, as do two nongovernment organizations recognized by the UN Economic and Social Council: OutRight Action International (formerly known as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission) and Human Rights Watch. Members support the group’s events through an ad hoc system of voluntary contributions.
Initial leadership for the Core Group came from such countries as Argentina, Britain and France. From the start, Human Rights Watch and OutRight have likewise provided key connections with civil society organizations and offered expertise on SOGI issues. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights joined the core group in 2010, and has since emerged as a hub of LGBT-related rights advocacy within the UN. This has included launching the UN Human Rights Office’s global Free & Equal campaign and working closely with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to support his public and private advocacy on these issues.
“The political landscape has changed markedly in the past 10 years at the UN when it comes to human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity — in part because of the work of the Core Group,” said Charles Radcliffe, a senior adviser in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Today, there are far more countries that care about these issues and are supportive of the cause of LGBT equality. That helps to create the political space you need if you want to make progress. It makes it easier for the UN Human Rights Office and other parts of the UN to step up their efforts to promote and protect equal rights for members of the LGBT community.”
The LGBT Core Group was launched in part to build upon the Yogyakarta Principles, which were enunciated in 2006 by an independent group of experts in human rights from academia and civil society. Introduced at the UN by Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay and several civil society organizations in November 2007, the Principles are “a universal guide to human rights which affirm binding international legal standards with which all States must comply” regarding SOGI issues.
In 2008, the Core Group set up its first high-level meeting, at which Navi Pillay, the human rights commissioner at the time and a South African, called for the decriminalization of same-sex relationships, likening them to laws from the apartheid era. Diplomats from France and the Netherlands spoke out against discrimination as well, joined by human-rights defenders from around the world, including Cameroon, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, Nepal, Peru and Turkey.
Every December since then, the Core Group has sponsored side events surrounding Human Rights Day, drawing attention to such violations as attacks on the security of LGBT and intersex people; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; practices of torture and degrading treatment; arbitrary arrests and detentions; and violent and discriminatory bullying.
In 2010, for example, the group’s Human Rights Day event provided the setting for Ban to give the first keynote speech ever delivered by a UN secretary-general on LGBT equality. In 2012, with a focus on “leadership in the fight against homophobia,” Ban was joined in marking the day by the French minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem; celebrities like Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Ricky Martin; human-rights defenders from Argentina, Malawi and Ukraine; and a video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Among more recent breakthrough events, the Core Group held a high-level meeting during the opening session of the 2015 General Assembly in September, to focus on linking the inclusion of LGBT people to the future success of the new Sustainable Development Goals (even though LGBT issues had not been explicitly included in the wording of the goals).
Moreover, the Core Group continues to place LGBT rights within the larger orbit of human rights. It helped to secure a 2008 General Assembly statement on human rights and LGBT people that was joined by 68 countries and supported a 2011 Human Rights Council statement on ending anti-LGBT violence, signed by 85 countries. The Core Group has also supported the two major resolutions approved by the Human Rights Council (17/19 and 27/32) concerning sexual orientation and gender identity issues. And it has become an informal mechanism for information from LGBT civil society as new issues arise.
“We started modestly, simply organizing a single event, but believed that our ongoing cooperation would help shift recognition of LGBT and intersex rights at the UN,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight. “Eight years later, through each event organized and public statement, we’ve shown that the UN is increasingly a place of refuge for LGBT and intersex communities. The core group shows that persistence pays off.”
[This essay was updated on Dec. 14, 2015.]
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Raymond A. Smith is an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and New York University as well as a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He has written or co-authored numerous books, including most recently “Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.” He is also the editor of a three-volumen book titled “Global HIV/AIDS Politics, Policy, and Activism: Persistent Challenges and Emerging Issues.”
Smith has an M.A. in international relations from Yale University and a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, with an emphasis on American politics.