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UN's New Gay Rights Advocate Unfazed by Anti-LGBTQ Opposition

Nations may outlaw same-sex relations, execute gay people and oppose the existence of his job, but Vitit Muntarbhorn is undeterred.

by Thomson Reuters Foundation /
Vitit Muntarbhorn speaks with the UN press corps.Albin Lohr-Jones - Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

Nations may outlaw same-sex relations, execute gay people and oppose the very existence of his job, but the United Nations' first investigator tasked with combating violence and discrimination against gay and transgender people is undeterred.

 Vitit Muntarbhorn speaks with the UN press corps. Albin Lohr-Jones - Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

Even countries perceived as the most virulent opponents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights may have pockets of openness and tolerance, said Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, the U.N.'s new gay rights independent investigator.

Muntarbhorn's job - to address, protect against and combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity - was created by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council despite strong objections by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

African states then sought to have his work suspended, but their effort was overridden by Latin American and Western nations at the United Nations last month.

Still, Russia and Egypt, speaking on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, have said they would not recognize Muntarbhorn's mandate nor cooperate with him.

"What is important from my perspective is not to see countries or governments as monolithic," Muntarbhorn told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week, in one of the first interviews he has given since his appointment in September.

"If you start to liaise and bridge-build, you will also find niches where you will find people who are more open," he said.

"So my approach has always been that I must dialog with, I must interlink with those who might say no to the mandate from the start."

More than 70 nations have laws against same sex relations, and hundreds of LGBTI people have been killed and thousands injured in recent years, the U.N. has reported.

Yet one country might take entirely different approaches toward gay and transgender people, leaving room for progress, said Muntarbhorn, 64, an international law professor at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

He has served on several U.N. bodies, including inquiries on Syria and as a special rapporteur on North Korea.

"For example, in my country, there's no law against gays ... but for the trans group, they can't change their gender identity," Muntarbhorn said.

Unable to change their legal identities, transgender people face issues from access to toilets to job and immigration rights, he said.

Other countries might support transgender rights yet have laws making gay people subject to the death penalty, he said.

Neither are the rights or expectations of the LGBTI community the same across the world, he added.

Along with violence and discrimination are such issues as rights to marry and adopt, he said. Some intersex people, meanwhile, who have ambiguous sex characteristics and identify as neither male nor female, are concerned with overcoming a medical perception that they are abnormal, he said.

Muntarbhorn added that he does not look at his task in terms of how many people he might represent around the world.

"One person might be affected 10, 20, 100 times, bullied at a young age, can't go to toilet, laughed at, tortured, ultimately killed and defamed at the same time," he said. "How many violations can you count?"

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