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African countries fail to block UN gay rights appointment

December 20, 2016

The UN General Assembly has narrowly voted in favour of keeping its LGBTI envoy. A group of African countries opposing the move had argued that the envoy has no legal mandate.

Diskrimieriung gegen Homosexuelle in Afrika
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Curtis

The United Nations General Assembly on Monday rejected a bid by several African countries, led by Burkina Faso, to suspend the work of the UN's first ever expert dealing with discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The measure was defeated by 77 votes to 84, with 16 abstentions.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, an international law professor from Thailand, was appointed in September with a three-year mandate to investigate cases of discrimination and abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people worldwide.

The African Group - which has 54 member countries, making it the largest of the UN's regional groups - argued that there was no legal basis for the expert's mandate and that "there is no international agreement on the definition of the concept of 'sexual orientation and gender identity'."

Vitit Muntarbhorn UN Menschenrechtsrat Genf 16.09.2013
Vitit Muntarbhorn was appointed to the new role in September with a three-year mandateImage: Jean-Marc Ferre/UN Geneva/cc-by-nc-nd-2.0

This was the second attempt by the African countries to block the new appointment. On November 21, the UN human rights committee rejected an African draft resolution opposing Muntarbhorn's work.

Respecting human rights

Addressing the General Assembly on Monday, Samantha Power, the United States UN Ambassador, said the bid was being driven by "a group of member states that believe it is acceptable to treat people differently because of who they are or who they love."

She added: "This is not an issue of the North trying to impose its values on the South. It is an issue of respecting the dignity and human rights of all people everywhere."

Karel van Oosterom, the Dutch UN Ambassador, also argued in defense of retaining the LGBTI expert, saying: "People around the world are being bullied, are being jailed, are being beaten, are being killed, for no other reason than for which gender they identify with most, or for whom they happen to love."

UN divided on gay rights

According to a UN human rights report published last year, at least 76 countries still have anti-gay laws in place. Homosexuality is still illegal in 34 African countries.

UN-Generalsekretär Ban Ki-moon
Outgoing United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has been praised for his support of gay rightsImage: Ruters/V. Kessler

Last month, members of the international Organization of Islamic Cooperation, along with Russia, said they would refuse to cooperate with Muntarbhorn or recognize his mandate.

Russia led an unsuccessful bid in 2015 to override outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's statement that the UN would recognize the same-sex marriages of its staff members.