Last Human Rights Frontier: Sexual Orientation
The Gully caught up with Ottawa-based ACPD Executive Director Katherine McDonald shortly after the 53-member Commission, under heavy pressure from the Vatican and the Organization of Islamic States, voted on April 25 to postpone consideration of the resolution until 2004.
The Gully: What's your assessment of what happened in Geneva?
Katherine McDonald: We all view it as a quite a victory. Brazil has been spectacular in its support of this resolution. We're not talking Sweden here, but Brazil!
You have to keep in mind that everything at the UN moves at an incredibly slow pace, and we finally saw open discussion and debate about sexual orientation. The first time it was mentioned, I guess, was at Beijing [the 1995 World Conference on Women]. Since then, there's been incremental movement. Every year, a little more.
Now, sexual orientation is not groundbreaking anymore. It's the last frontier in the human rights discourse. The time has come for the UN to take up sexual orientation. It's critical that it does.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that don't have a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender focus have made a lot of progress in entering a comfort zone in dealing with sexual orientation as a human rights issue. Sexual orientation is not just seen as part of sexual or reproductive health. Overall, I think what happened in Geneva is really positive.
You speak of "incremental movement" since the Beijing conference. What's different now?
One difference is that last year, for the first time, the phrase "sexual orientation" made it into a UN document, a resolution on extra-judicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, so that if you do a search [of the phrase] on the UN site the resolution will turn up. That's so important...
It's very difficult to explain when you're here, in Canada. People say, So what?, when you live in a country where anti-discrimination laws have been on the books for years and every taxi driver knows you can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But people need to know it's not the same in every country, and that something like being mentioned in the UN database has a real impact.
The resolution was blocked and postponed. Couldn't the same thing happen next year?
Next year, I'm certain there will be a vote. Next year, there will be huge pressure on the Chair to hold the vote. Even if it were lost, it would still be a major victory. It would mean that a major, core body of the human rights system has had to discuss the issue [of sexual orientation and human rights].
What can resolution supporters do next year to counter procedural shenanigans such as the ones we saw this year?
NGOs can contact governments early in the game and get delegates better prepared, urge the Commission to have legal counsel available. Remember, this resolution will have to be discussed and voted on. And next time, even if we lose the vote, we won't see it as a failure.
Why was the resolution only publicized at the last minute? It seems like there was a disconnect between those in the know on the one hand, and the media and queer communities worldwide on the other.
We didn't know either. Brazil didn't let anyone know ahead of time. Brazil introduced the resolution part way through the Commission's session.
Any country can introduce a resolution during the session. Countries usually come up with a draft bill and then get together with like-minded delegates to create a final draft. Brazil came prepared with a full resolution. They've done it before. Their reasoning is that they don't want to compromise before they've even begun.
Our group was only one of two NGOs attending the session, so we were among the first to find out, though Amnesty may have known earlier (I heard they may have been working behind the scenes beforehand).
What's going to happen now?
NGOs are now discussing the issue with a lot of their colleagues. This will be a hot topic for NGOs this coming year. There's lots of time to discuss it, and it will probably be at the top of everyone's agenda this year. I'm sure it'll be discussed at the upcoming International Planned Parenthood conference on sexual rights. It's going to be very interesting, very healthy for our movement as a whole. It's a very exciting time.
Any particular organization taking the lead?
I hope Amnesty gets involved, and I would think IGLHRC. We'll certainly be there. But pressure can also be applied on the domestic level without coming together on an international level. Activists need to pressure their own governments.