For the first time, LGBT rights will be formally institutionalized into the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations

The UN Human Rights Council today voted in a hotly contested decision to create a new “independent expert” to probe human rights violations against LGBT people worldwide. The debate leading up to the vote was intense. Culturally conservative countries opposed to the resolution tried furiously to scuttle the measure, or at the very least water it down. Saudi Arabia tried to block the resolution all together, and at one point Nigeria even tried to delete the title of the resolution.

But in the end, it passed with strong Western and Latin American support: 23 to 18, with six abstentions.

And now, for the first time, LGBT rights will be formally institutionalized into the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations.

What does an Independent Expert do?

The UN Human Rights Council is a 47 member body that routinely examines global human rights issues. One of the key ways that the Council does this is through appointing and dispatching independent experts or special rapporteurs (which are functionally the same thing) to investigate situations and brief the Council or other UN bodies. The “experts” are usually human rights lawyers or academics with deep knowledge and background on the specific issue, and are not formally employed by the UN. They are, as the name suggests “independent.”

Some of the experts focus on specific countries, like the “Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan” or the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.” And some are on cross border thematic issues, like the “Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism,” or the “Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.” 

The yet-to-be-named new “Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” falls into this latter category, and will be serve a three year term.

(As the name suggests, the expert’s mandate includes ‘gender identity’ in addition to sexual orientation. This is something activists see as a win. A Security Council statement condemning the Orlando massacre excluded “gender identity” at the insistence of some member states —  effectively leaving off the “T” of “LGBT”) 

The new independent expert’s mandate also includes, among other things, making recommendations to member states and UN bodies on how they can improve and expand LGBT rights, providing technical assistance to countries to help design and implement policies to protect LGBT rights, and general awareness raising about specific threats to the LGBT communities worldwide.

Will This Actually Help Protect the Rights of LGBT Communities Under Threat?

The extent to which he or she will be effective in their job, is still unknown.  But there is empirical data that demonstrates the appointment of these experts does help push the needle in the right direction and can lead to real improvements in human rights.

In 2011, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution compiled evidence to this effect. In his book  Catalysts for Change: How the U.N.’s Independent Experts Promote Human Rights describes how these independent experts and special rapporteurs have a fairly good track record of advancing human rights. Here he is discussing his findings.



To be sure, one of the main obstacles to the work of these experts is non-cooperation by governments hostile to their agenda. And, already, a number of countries have pledged to simply ignore the new LGBT rights expert. But given the high profile nature of the growing movement for LGBT rights in many key UN member states, the threat of non-cooperation from some states may be bluster. Some of these countries could pay a high political price from, say, denying a visa request or obstructing the expert’s work in one way or another.

Finally, the decision today is a good demonstration that even an imperfect council–which currently includes countries like Burundi and Saudi Arabia; and is sometimes criticized for unfairly singling out Israel — can still be an effective agent of progress on some of the most important global human rights issues of our era.