Progress in recognizing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people at the United Nations in New York and in Geneva may seem detached from the realities faced by LGBTQ people in the Middle East and North Africa, or Mena, region. Activists there, however, are navigating the UN human-rights system as part of their advocacy repertoire, with notable success.
At the same time, a small group of nations at the UN is responding to advocacy efforts and challenging the notion that Arabic-speaking states in the region have homogenous views on LGBTQ rights.
Together, these developments are making a difference in linking national and international progress for the rights of LGBTQ people in the North Africa/Middle East area.
As we approach the renewal of the mandate of the independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, whose creation had faced fierce opposition from a number of countries, especially in the Mena region, and amid rising opposition to the human rights of LGBTQ people even in countries heralded as champions of such equality, the few countries in Mena breaking rank on the rights of LGBTQ people could be a game-changer.
A recent report from the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality and OutRight Action International, nonprofit groups based in Beirut and New York, respectively, documents strategies that LGBTQ organizations and activists have used to win legal and social progress in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. The findings show incredibly creative strategies, such as feminist organizing, artistic expression and engagement with a range of UN mechanisms.
Since the mid-1990s, considerable gains have been achieved in recognizing the human rights of individuals regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, by UN entities. Key milestones include the Human Rights Council passing the first resolution on violence and discrimination of LGBTQ people in 2011; and the creation and defense of the mandate of the independent expert on SOGI in 2016.
Yet Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East-North Africa area, often based on positions from voting blocs that include the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and the Africa and Arab groups in the UN, have traditionally opposed discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. Instead, they argue that respect for human rights of LGBTQ people imposes “Western values” while compromising local ones and undermine international consensus by enforcing new norms under international human-rights law.
In June 2016, for example, Morocco opposed the inception of the mandate of the independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, or SOGI, arguing that it conflicted with the “values and beliefs of at least 1.5 billion people that belong to one civilization.”
Yet activists and certain national delegations from the region are proving that there is less consensus than such statements would suggest. In August 2015, Jordan participated in a UN Security Council meeting on “Vulnerable groups in conflict: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s(ISIL) targeting of LGBTI individuals.”
The meeting represented the first discussion focused exclusively on LGBTIQ issues in the Security Council, the UN’s most important organ dedicated to peace and security. Significantly, the Jordanian delegate acknowledged the effects of the terrorist group on various minorities.
In November 2016, Lebanon and Tunisia broke consensus with regional blocs by not voting on an amendment to stop the mandate of the independent expert on SOGI at the UN General Assembly. The vote was closely scrutinized, with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, of which Lebanon and Tunisia belong, issuing a statement against the mandate.
Promising signs have occurred at the UN in Geneva as well. In May 2017, five Tunisian LGBTQ organizations submitted a civil society shadow report before Tunisia’s May 2017 universal periodic review session in which the UN Human Rights Council assessed the state of human rights in the country.
The report and a strong advocacy campaign contributed to the Tunisian delegation’s accepting two recommendations calling for the country to combat discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people. Notably, the Tunisian minister of human rights said in his closing remarks that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation contravenes the constitution.
Similarly, at its last universal periodic review session in May 2017, the Moroccan delegation accepted three recommendations to address violence, discrimination and criminalization of people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The struggle to ensure that the promises made in New York and in Geneva for recognizing the rights of LGBTQ people is hardly over, especially in translating the new support in the countries themselves. In Tunisia, for example, despite promises in Geneva to end the practice forced anal exams, activists note that they continue to be used against LGBTQ people.
Yet where governments often remain silent or make derogatory remarks about LGBTQ people, progress at the UN is another path to affect domestic change. But it is evident that local activists, through the UN and elsewhere, are making gains and breaking up often-professed regional consensus. These advances can be crucial for ensuring UN influence in achieving real change for people and, in turn, for maintaining the momentum on human rights of LGBTQ people within the UN itself.
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Suraj Girijashanker is a David W. Leebron Human Rights Fellow at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, based in Beirut, and at OutRight Action International, in New York. He is studying law at Columbia University.