LGBT rights have become a geo-political battleground

Twelve United Nations agencies have taken the unprecedented step of making a joint statement to push states to protect the human rights of LGBT people around the world. This could not come at a more crucial time — LGBT rights have become a battleground for cultural and geo-political tensions around the world. Even this week, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe made clear his view at the UN General Assembly that he regards homosexuality as a uniquely Western ‘tradition’.

The UN statement calls on states to act urgently to end violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex adults, adolescents and children. A report issued in April indicates that in 2015 violence against LGBT people shows no sign of abating.

The UN statement emphasised the deep impact that prejudice based on sexuality and gender can have — human rights abuses against LGBTI people leads to lower economic outputs, social tension, family break-up, ill health, and curbs opportunities for national development. The UN decision is another towards integrating and codifying rights linked to gender and sexuality into the discourse of human rights based on freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of speech — LGBT rights are not separate sphere of rights granted exclusively to LGBT communities. Instead, abuses against LGBT people are the same abuses that many other communities face around the world — threats to the ability to lead a self-determined life.

The statement also makes it clear that the twelve agencies are prepared to work together to support states in ending violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons. This brings together disparate parts of the UN organization — from the UNHRC to UNDP — agencies that frequently do not have overlapping work. The statement firmly positions LGBT rights as a central issue facing the global human rights and development community. It follows other efforts to relate LGBT rights to development agendas — In February the United States appointed the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT persons. This followed World Bank research into the link between oppression of LGBT people and economic under-development.

What might this mean for communities on the ground?

Currently 76 states retain laws to criminalize and harass people on basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT rights have become a tool to project a gulf in norms and values between east and west. In Russia, President Putin sees himself as a cultural warrior defending Russia and the post-Soviet space in the caucuses and Central Asia from an influx of foreign ideas — claiming that no-one can be gay in Russia is a leading battle cry. Legislation to ban expressions of ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations in Russia and Central Asia are a direct result of this debate.

In African countries such as Uganda, the Sudan and parts of Nigeria, LGBT people can face the death penalty and people suffer daily oppression. As in Russia, this is justified by the claim that homosexuality is alien to their national cultures and traditions.  The UN position — encompassing as it does a global assertion of rights — re-affirms that the right to determine one’s own sexuality and gender is universal and inherent to humanity.

However, this is a statement by UN agencies alone — not by the United Nations General Assembly. It does not represent a consensus view expressed by member nations and therefore cannot guarantee that states who oppose LGBT rights will respect the expressed views. Yet, it is a fundamental step in enshrining LGBT rights in the work of the 12 UN agencies – and as a tool of soft power, firmly moves abuse of LGBT individuals from the periphery closer to core of the global human rights agenda.