By Sarah Joseph
On November 16, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 79 to 70 (with 17 abstentions and 26 absentees), removed an explicit condemnation of killings on the basis of sexual orientation from a GA resolution. The reference to “sexual orientation” has been included in previous resolutions which condemn extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The sad implication is that sexual orientation is not an arbitrary ground for executing people. This is an extremely dangerous development, with a few countries classifying homosexual activity as a capital crime (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria), and Uganda considering amendments to its law so as to prescribe execution as a possible punishment. The rampant homophobia unleashed by the Ugandan proposal is illustrated by the appalling incident of a local paper publishing the photos of 100 gay men, calling for the State to “Hang them”.
This vote will give rise to legitimate criticism of the UN. However, the UN is composed of its member States, and it is those States, or rather, the 79 who voted for the amendment, along with the abstainers and absentees, who are to blame. The vote is perhaps a sad reflection of the values of the States in the General Assembly, who each have one vote.
However, is this vote a true reflection of the actual values of those States? Perhaps the vote is more a reflection of unprincipled regionalism, with all of the African Group, most Islamic States and most of the Asian group voting for the deletion of the reference to “sexual orientation”, abstaining, or mysteriously failing to turn up to the vote. Yet this group of States includes countries such as South Africa (voting for deletion), where same sex marriage is legal, and Thailand (abstaining), where same sex sexual relations have been legal since 1956, long before Australia. It included a number of States who supported a General Assembly Resolution in 2008 which denounced homophobia: Albania (absent), Bolivia (absent), Cape Verde (abstaining), Central African Republic (absent), Colombia (abstaining), Cuba (voted for deletion), Gabon (absent) Guinea-Bissau (absent), Mauritius (abstaining), and Sao Tome and Principe (absent).
Where possible (and it is admittedly not so easy in the most repressive of States), the governments of these countries must be held accountable, particularly at home, for their GA vote by the opposition and civil society groups, including those that promote GLBT rights but also any group that promotes human rights. National human rights institutions, where they exist, should also place pressure on governments. Democratic States may be targeted by such actions, such as the following (characterised by Freedom House as “free” States): South Africa, Indonesia (which voted for deletion), Mongolia (abstained), Botswana (voted for deletion), Mali (voted for deletion), Benin (which sponsored the resolution to delete the reference to sexuality), Namibia (which voted for deletion), and Suriname (voted for deletion). While homophobia is unfortunately prevalent in some of these States, it is extremely unlikely that the populations of these States support the killing of GLBT people. And it is pertinent to remind these governments that that is what their votes (or cowardly non-votes) imply! Too often local populations are completely unaware of the outrageous votes that their governments make on their behalf in the UN or other forums. This time these governments must be shamed, abroad certainly but also at home, for voting (or running away from a vote) in a way that is hypocritical, and promotes regional solidarity far above human rights principles and the most basic rights of life, liberty and security of the person for LGBT people.