South Africa drew criticism In June from human rights groups when it abstained from voting to appoint the first-ever U.N. expert tasked with investigating LGBT rights abuses worldwide.
That criticism turned to praise this week when South Africa voted in favor of the appointment in a turnaround that broke ranks with other African countries questioning the legality of the post and seeking to delay it.
South Africa is the only African country where same-sex marriage is legal. It is considered a haven on the continent for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand was appointed in June as an independent U.N. investigator with a three-year mandate to investigate abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. His job started Nov. 1.
A bid by African countries to delay his appointment was defeated Monday, News 24 reported. A group of African countries proposed a resolution demanding talks on the legality of the new expert’s mandate and sought to delay it in the General Assembly’s human rights committee.
The measure was gutted of its key demand when a group of Latin American countries presented an amendment deleting the request to delay the appointment.
The amendment was adopted 84 to 77, with 17 abstentions.
Somalia and Rwanda abstained. China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia were among the countries that supported the African bid to suspend the appointment.
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South Africa broke ranks and voted in favor of the amendment, along with the U.S., Canada, European and South American countries which also voted to keep the expert in his post.
Activists objected when South Africa sided with the African Group’s resolution in June to abstain from appointing Muntarbhorn.
Kingsley Mamabolo, the South African ambassador to the U.N., had a different message during this week’s voting session, Mail & Guardian reported.
“Discrimination has torn South Africa apart for the 350 years. We will fight discrimination everywhere. We cannot discriminate against people who are LGBTI.”
Although South Africa’s stance on the protection of the rights of LGBTI people was “a position disagreed with by many of our colleagues across the continent,” he said, “We are not going to add fresh wounds when we are still healing our wounds in South Africa because of discrimination.”
Botswana led the Africa Group of countires in retroactively seeking to block Muntarbhorn’s job, which started Nov. 1, Voice of America reported.
He is the first U.N. Independent Expert on the Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The position was created by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.
He will visit countries to investigate allegations of LGBT rights violations with governments and work to protect rights defenders, News 24 reported.
LGBT rights is a divisive issue among the U.N.’s 193 member countries. Some countries oppose homosexuality based on religious or cultural grounds.
Almost 40 percent of U.N. members — 73 countries — still have laws on their books making homosexuality a crime.
In Africa alone, 33 countries have anti-gay laws including Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan and Mauritania.
Botswana’s U.N. ambassador Charles Thembani Ntwaagae argued that sexual orientation and gender identity are not defined under international human rights law.
“No nation or group of nations should pretend to hold a monopoly over cultural norms and therefore seek to impose those values on others,” he said.
“The African group is wondering which international legal instrument defines the concept of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“These notions are not enshrined in any international human rights instrument.
“The African group is of the view that the mandate of the independent expert lacks the necessary specificity to be carried out fairly.”
The measure is now expected to go to the General Assembly for a vote, but is not expected to block the LGBT expert.
Almost 800 human rights organisations and civil society groups urged U.N. members in a joint letter not to overturn Muntarbhorn’s appointment.
The outcome of the vote “affirms that the right to be protected from violence and discrimination applies equally to LGBT people”, said Boris Dittrich, LGBT rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“It also respects the integrity of the Human Rights Council, as the UN’s top human rights body, to ensure that mechanisms are in place to protect rights not just in theory, but in practice.”
The African Group also wrote a letter, Mail & Guardian reported: “We are even more disturbed at the attempt to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviours, while ignoring that intolerance and discrimination regrettably exist in various parts of the world, be it on the basis of colour, race, sex or religion, to mention only a few. These attempts … seriously jeopardise the entire international human rights framework as they create divisions.
“We are alarmed that the council is delving into matters which fall essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states counter to the commitment in the U.N. Charter to respect the sovereignty of states and the principle of non-intervention. More importantly, it arises owing to the ominous usage of the two notions: sexual orientation and gender identity. We wish to state that those two notions are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments.”
Melanie Judge, an activist and associate professor at at the University of Cape Town Centre for Law and Society, welcomed South Africa’s apparent about-turn.
“South Africa’s vote was in step with our Constitution,” Judge said. “It was also the logical continuation of a U.N. resolution in 2011 that was led by South Africa and that aimed to address discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Our country’s bold leadership on the rights of LGBTI people should come as no surprise. Commitment to non-discrimination in all its forms is the direct result of South Africa’s history of oppression and the desire to now ‘bury discriminations once and for all.’”
The vote not only safeguards South Africa’s Constitution, but also encourage the integrity and dignity of diversity, which will help unite the country, said Steve Letsike, director of Access Chapter 2.
Elsbeth Engelbrecht, director of Triangle Project, said South Africa caved to pressure from local and international lobby groups.
“I’m cynical of this change of heart,” Engelbrecht said. “I really do not think this would have happened were it not for the work of activists locally and internationally. I don’t know what the government’s motivations are, but I presume there must have been some introspection subsequent to the outcry by activists.”
Letsike agreed: “The government’s turn-around is, I think, largely due to the pressures put on it by human rights defenders locally and internationally.”
John Fischer, director of Human Rights Watch Geneva, said: “We welcome South Africa’s strong statement affirming that combating discrimination in all its forms is a constitutional commitment, and underlining South Africa’s support for measures to address violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Many civil society organisations, in South Africa and round the world, joined together to support this recognition that human rights are universal and indivisible. South Africa’s support for the operations of the independent expert will be crucial in fostering dialogue to address LGBT-related violence and discrimination on the continent and around the world.”
South Africa was one of the few African countries that did not support delaying Muntarbhorn’s appointment, Voice of America reported. Several countries said Monday that they would not recognize or cooperate with him.
LGBT tourism in South Africa is a form of niche tourism marketed to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who visit South Africa, according to an earlier AFKInsider report.