Combatting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
“Some say that sexual orientation and gender identity are sensitive issues. I understand. Like many of my generation, I did not grow up talking about these issues. But I learned to speak out because lives are at stake, and because it is our duty under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere.” — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Human Rights Council, 7 March 2012
Deeply-embedded homophobic and transphobic attitudes, often combined with a lack of adequate legal protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, expose many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of all ages and in all regions of the world to egregious violations of their human rights. They are discriminated against in the labour market, in schools and in hospitals, mistreated and disowned by their own families. They are singled out for physical attack – beaten, sexually assaulted, tortured and killed. In several countries, laws against cross dressing are used to punish transgender people on the basis of their gender identity and expression. And in some 77 countries, discriminatory laws criminalize private, consensual same-sex relationships – exposing individuals to the risk of arrest, prosecution, imprisonment — even, in at least five countries, the death penalty.
Concerns about these and related human rights violations have been expressed repeatedly by United Nations human rights mechanisms since the early 1990s. These mechanisms include the treaty bodies established to monitor States’ compliance with international human rights treaties, as well as the special rapporteurs and other independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to investigate and report on pressing human rights challenges.
Similar concerns have been expressed by High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein and his predecessor Navi Pillay, as well as by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other senior UN officials. On Human Rights Day (10 December) 2010, the Secretary-General delivered the first of several major policy speeches on the quest for LGBT equality, calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality and for other measures to tackle violence and discrimination against LGBT people. “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 a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day,” he said.
Protecting LGBT people from violence and discrimination does not require the creation of a new set of LGBT-specific rights, nor does it require the establishment of new international human rights standards. The legal obligations of States to safeguard the human rights of LGBT people are well established in international human rights law on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequently agreed international human rights treaties. All people, irrespective of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, are entitled to enjoy the protections provided for by international human rights law, including in respect of rights to life, security of person and privacy, the right to be free from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to be free from discrimination and the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The core legal obligations of States with respect to protecting the human rights of LGBT people include obligations to:
- Protect individuals from homophobic and transphobic violence.
- Prevent torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
- Repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality and transgender people.
- Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Safeguard freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly for all LGBT people.
For more information on applicable international human rights standards in this context, please refer to the Born Free and Equal booklet published by OHCHR in September 2012.
In recent years, many States have made a determined effort to strengthen human rights protection for LGBT people. An array of new laws has been adopted – including laws banning discrimination, penalizing homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, granting recognition of same-sex relationships, and making it easier for transgender individuals to obtain official documents that reflect their preferred gender. Training programmes have been developed for police, prison staff, teachers, social workers and other personnel, and anti-bullying initiatives have been implemented in many schools.
The issue is also receiving unprecedented attention at an inter-governmental level. Since 2003, the General Assembly has repeatedly called attention to the killings of persons because of their sexual orientation or gender identity through its resolutions on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. In June 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 17/19 – the first United Nations resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity – expressing “grave concern” at violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Its adoption paved the way for the first official United Nations report on the issue prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/19/41). The report’s findings formed the basis of a panel discussion that took place at the Council in March 2012 – the first time a United Nations intergovernmental body had held a formal debate on the subject. In September 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted a new resolution (27/32), once again expressing grave concern at such human rights violations and requesting the High Commissioner to produce an update of report A/HRC/19/41 with a view to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination, in application of existing international human rights law and standards, and to present it to the 29th session of the Human Rights Council.
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 repeal of laws criminalizing LGBT persons and further measures to protect people from violence and discrimination on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Ongoing 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 LGBT persons, including reporting produced by OHCHR field presences.
- Engaging in public advocacy of decriminalization and other measures necessary to strengthen human rights protection for LGBT persons, including through speeches and statements, newspaper articles, video messages, fact sheets and distribution of various other materials.
- Working with UN partners to implement various activities intended to counter discrimination and violence motivated by animosity towards LGBT persons.
- Providing support for the special procedures 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 and gender identity 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 LGBT persons to be aired and for recommendations to be developed.
On 26 July 2013, former High Commissioner Navi Pillay launched a public information campaign designed to raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination and promote greater respect for the rights of LGBT people everywhere. All campaign materials are available through a dedicated website -- www.unfe.org. You can follow the campaign on Facebook facebook.com/free.equal or Twitter (@free_equal).
The Office’s work on LGBT human rights is coordinated from OHCHR-New York. For further background, written materials and other recent LGBT-related outputs, please explore the links in the top right-hand column of this page, including feature stories on our work.