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United Nations Narrowly Votes to Keep LGBTQ Envoy

African states failed for a second time to fire the first UN investigator appointed to help protect LGBTQ people worldwide from violence and discrimination.

by Mary Emily O'Hara /
Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, speaks during a press conference in Seoul.Kim Jaw-Hwan / AFP/Getty Images

On Monday morning, the United Nations was split almost down the middle in a vote on whether or not to keep the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI)—the international body’s first-ever appointment tasked with monitoring human rights abuses against LGBTQ people.

 Vitit Muntarbhorn Kim Jaw-Hwan / AFP/Getty Images

Seventy-seven countries voted to fire the ambassador, Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was appointed in September with a three-year mandate to investigate anti-LGBTQ abuses. Muntarbhorn—a professor of international and human rights law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University—had previously served on the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the Commission on Human Rights on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the International Commission of Inquiry on the Ivory Coast.

Eighty-four nations voted to keep the LGBTQ investigator post—often referred to as the “SOGI mandate”—with 16 countries abstaining from the vote.

Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said the effort to fire the LGBTQ envoy was brought largely by African countries and was “unacceptable.”

Reuters quoted Power on Monday saying the vote was rooted in “disagreement over whether people of a certain sexual orientation and gender identity are in fact entitled to equal rights."

"And it is being driven by a group of U.N. member states that believe it is acceptable to treat people differently because of who they are or who they love," Power told the General Assembly.

The number of U.N states that voted against the LGBTQ investigator were nearly equal to the number of nations and entities worldwide that criminalize homosexuality and LGBTQ-related expression, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), which tracks LGBTQ policy around the world.

According to ILGA’s latest criminalization map, nearly 80 countries and entities punish LGBTQ populations with imprisonment or the death penalty. Many of those anti-LGBTQ nations are located on the African continent, throughout the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe. Russia, notorious for its law against LGBTQ “propaganda,” was the largest nation to attempt to vote Muntarbhorn out of a job.

In a statement Monday, ILGA applauded the U.N.’s overall vote to keep the LGBTQ investigator.

“Once more, States have reaffirmed the importance of monitoring human rights violations against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” said ILGA’s co-Secretaries General Helen Kennedy and Ruth Baldacchino, who called the appointment “a crucial leap towards a world where all are treated free and equal.”

Muntarbhorn was appointed to the new role in September but took office November 1. Ever since, anti-LGBTQ nations have been working to block the work of the investigator—likely because their countries could face sanctions for things like sentencing their LGBTQ citizens to death.

“Never before had a country or group of countries attempted to challenge a special procedures mandate by the Human Rights Council with a fully functioning mandate holder,” said André du Plessis, UN Programme and Advocacy Manager at ILGA, in a statement emailed to NBC Out Monday.

“If the General Assembly would have reopened the Council’s annual report to block or defer resolutions with a selective approach,” du Plessis continued, “It would have fundamentally undermined the authority granted to the Council by the General Assembly, setting a dangerous precedent for the whole human rights framework."

In November, African states circulated a draft resolution at the U.N.’s General Assembly third committee, calling for more clarification around the mandate of the LGBTQ investigator—and demanding that the position be halted pending further inquiry. At the time, Botswana's U.N. Ambassador Charles Ntwaagae spoke for the 54-member Africa group, saying that sexual orientation and gender identity "are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments."

Ntwaagae also referred to sexual orientation and gender identity as “non-internationally agreed notions” that should not be given attention at the U.N. to the “detriment of issues of paramount importance, such as the right to development and the racism agenda."

Latin American countries, supported by Western nations, led the charge against the resolution in late November, amending it to avoid any changes to the SOGI investigator. The vote for that amendment fell along the exact same split as Monday’s vote—with 84 countries voting to keep Muntarbhorn’s position and 77 countries voting to cut it.

After the U.N. narrowly dodged Monday’s latest move by the anti-LGBTQ nations, the international human rights group Outright Action International condemned continued attempts to intervene.

“They don’t want the SOGI Independent Expert to ever get to work protecting the lives of people who are vulnerable, and many governments around the world saw through this diversionary tactic,” said Ging Cristobal, OutRight’s Project Coordinator for Asia based in the Philippines—one of the 77 countries to vote against Muntarbhorn.

In a statement Monday, OutRight noted that the historically anti-LGBTQ Caribbean nations had begun to shift their votes: Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Kitts all voted against firing the investigator.

“We will not be beaten or swayed,” said Kenita Placide, OutRight’s Caribbean Advisor based in St. Lucia. “We are ready to fight every challenge that comes our way, and we will rise to the challenge to ensure that our human rights are protected. This is an issue of universal dignity.”

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