Gay rights supporters win victory to keep UN LGBT expert

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Supporters of gay rights won a victory at the United Nations Monday when an African attempt to suspend the first U.N. independent expert charged with investigating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity failed.

African nations had urged the General Assembly’s human rights committee to delay implementation of a resolution adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to determine “the legal basis” for the expert’s mandate. They also sought to suspend the expert, Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, who was appointed on Sept. 30 and has started his work.

Latin American and Caribbean nations, who supported the appointment of the expert, introduced an amendment to get rid of the paragraph in the African-backed resolution calling for a delay in implementing the Human Rights Council resolution and suspension of the expert’s activities.

That amendment was adopted by a vote of 84-77 with 12 abstentions by the assembly’s human rights committee — a move that was welcomed by LGBT supporters.

The amended resolution, taking note of the Human Rights Council’s report without any reference to suspending the expert, was then approved by a vote of 94-3 with 80 abstentions.

It now goes to the 193-member General Assembly for a final vote next month, when the Africans could again try to seek a delay. But the result is likely to be very similar to Monday’s vote.

The vote on the amendment — and the 23-18 vote with 6 abstentions in the Human Rights Council that established the LGBT expert — reflect deep international divisions on gay rights.

The U.N. has worked to improve the rights of the LGBT community in recent years but has repeatedly run into opposition from some member states — especially from countries in the Middle East and Africa as well as China and Russia. Many of those countries spoke against the amendment on Monday.

According to a U.N. human rights report last year, at least 76 countries retain laws used to criminalize and harass people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, including laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships among adults.

Botswana’s U.N. Ambassador Charles Ntwaagae, who sponsored the resolution seeking the delay, reiterated Africa’s alarm that the Geneva-based Human Rights Council is delving into national matters and attempting to focus on people “on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviors” while ignoring intolerance and discrimination on other grounds including color, race, sex or religion.

U.S. deputy ambassador Sarah Mendelson countered that the council has approved numerous resolutions on violence and discrimination against minorities and others. She warned before the vote on the amendment that having the General Assembly re-open a Human Rights Council mandate for the first time could undermine its ability to function.

Gay rights groups campaigned hard against the African resolution.

A statement endorsed by 850 organizations from 157 countries around the world highlighted the need for all countries to respect the authority of the Human Rights Council and to vote in favor of the independent expert.

Jessica Stern, executive director of the U.S.-based gay rights group OutRight Action International, said the vote confirmed that countries believe in the council. “A lot can be accomplished when forces join hands,” she added.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.