Vitit Muntarbhorn, independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations, speaking at a press conference in 2014. Photo courtesy: UN / Jean-Marc Ferré
NEW YORK—A little over a year ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted to appoint an independent expert to promote awareness on violence and discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. It was a bold, new move for the United Nations, where gay rights have always been one of the world body’s most polarizing issues.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, a professor in international law from Thailand, assumed the position last September and will present his first report to the 72nd General Assembly this October, despite the hostility he has faced from anti-gay member states and criticism from LGBT rights organizations that have found his efforts underwhelming.
In November, the African states nearly succeeded in suspending the work of Muntarbhorn’s office with a narrowly defeated resolution put forward in the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. Russia and the Arab countries supported the effort led by the African coalition against the expert.
Homosexuality is still a crime in at least 76 countries. Private, consensual same-sex relationships can be punished with arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, and—at least in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan—even with the death penalty.
“It’s one of the most controversial appointments of the Special Procedures ever,” said Siri May, the UN program coordinator at OutRight International, an LGBT-led non-governmental organization headquartered in New York, in an interview. “It’s the result of ten years of work of the LGBTI global movement.”
May said that OutRight was one of the headlining organizations that pressured the United Nations to designate an Independent Expert for LGBT rights.
While the appointment is a success for the recognition and visibility of gay issues at the international level, for some it is too small a step, and more concrete actions should be undertaken.
Arsham Parsi, the director of a Canada-based nonprofit called the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, expected Muntarbhorn to contact his organization, but the call never came. The group helps Iranian LGBT individuals, whether they live in Iran or elsewhere. While Parsi acknowledged that Muntarbhorn’s work is “challenging,” he said he had hoped the expert’s priority would be to help LGBT people in countries where they are threatened with the capital punishment, where “it’s a matter of life or death.”
The new UN office did, however, produce press releases on Chechnya and Honduras as it focused more concertedly on writing a report on LGBT rights in Argentina. Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, said he considered this a “ridiculous” choice.
“We have all these experts, but if they will do their visits to Canada or the Netherlands, what’s the point?” Neuer told me in a phone interview, describing the visit to Argentina as a “distraction and a diversion.” LGBT individuals in Argentina can get married, adopt children, serve in the military and change their legal gender.
Neuer said one the challenges facing experts such as Muntarbhorn is the unwillingness of some countries—Iran or Saudi Arabia, for instance—to accept such visits.
“The fact that Mr. Muntarbhorn doesn’t get an invitation to certain countries is not unusual,” said May from OutRight International. “Most Special Procedures have limitations on countries they can enter. Decriminalization is a major issue, but it’s not the only issue on the table.” For example, she said, up to 40 percent of homeless people in New York identify as LGBT.
Muntarbhorn’s report to the 72nd General Assembly, in fact, shed light on a series of issues other than decriminalization of homosexuality, such as the protection of LGBT rights advocates. In the report, the expert also announced a partnership with the Equal Rights Coalition, a coalition of 25 states committed to advancing LGBT rights.
Legal recognition of the human rights of LGBT by the UN is “crucial,” said May.
The rights of queer people have always been a sidelined, polarizing issue at the UN, due to persistent criminalization or dismissal of LGBT concerns as non-issues. Having some of the world’s human rights abusers in the Human Rights Council—Saudi Arabia and Tunisia—certainly doesn’t help advancing new resolutions that advocate for the safety and health of queer individuals around the globe.
Neuer said that pressuring for the removal of Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council is one of the main efforts of UN Watch at the moment. In April, UN Watch exposed the UN for electing Saudi Arabia to a women’s rights commission in April. Following the exposure, the Belgian prime minister apologized, said he “regretted” the vote.
“Saudi Arabia has tremendous support, and many countries are afraid to speak up,” said Neuer. “This is the same situation as when we started our campaign against Gaddafi in Libya. It [seemed impossible]but in the end it happened. You never know. It’s our job to speak the truth.”
The author contacted Vitit Muntarbhorn who was unavailable for an interview.
Simone Somekh was born and raised in Turin, Italy. He has worked with publications based in Milan, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Berlin and New York. He is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in Journalism and European & Mediterranean Studies at New York University. Follow him on twitter: @simonsays101