South Africa’s LGBTI folk can have rights – others, not so much

South Africa has supported “a call for the suspension of the United Nations LGBTI rights expert“, because sexual orientation and gender identity “should not be linked to existing international human rights”. [Update, 22 November: SA has reversed course, and now support the establishment of the LGBTI rights expert position.]

Say what you will about whether “gender identity” is a confused concept (here’s Rebecca Reilly-Cooper with a thoughtful article on that), the fact remains that theoretical disputes are a separate matter from the fact that LGBTI folk are subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence exactly because of those identities.

To reiterate – I’m not interested in the authenticity of how we identify ourselves here, but rather the simple fact that how we do so impacts on how we are treated. Those who are perceived as fitting into “normal” categories – heterosexual white males like myself, for example – run an infinitesimally small risk of being discriminated against on the basis of that identity.

By contrast, homosexuality is illegal in Botswana. Uganda wanted to make it subject to the death penalty, but have now decided that a life sentence is more appropriate. Corrective rape to “cure” lesbians is reported in Zimbabwe, India, Uganda and South Africa.

South African LGBTI citizens are (legally, if not always in practice) protected from these abuses by a liberal constitution, that makes discrimination on these and other grounds illegal – precisely because it’s recognised as a human right just as much as freedom of belief or expression, and because it’s recognised as offering a source of “justification” for bigots to treat people poorly.

If it’s necessary and justified to have such protections for South Africans, how can it “not be linked to existing human rights” for LGBTI people in other parts of the world? Or rather, if it’s not, shouldn’t it be?

As Graeme Reid (of Human Rights Watch) points out in the first link above,

The rationale behind the appointment of the independent expert was based on two previous resolutions that produced reports which showed the widespread violence against LGBTI people globally. The appointment was made in an attempt to combat this violence.

In other words, this form of discrimination was identified as a special case – not in that it’s more prevalent, or more serious (or less) than any other human rights abuses – but a special case in that it merited separate monitoring.

Existing themes for the Human Rights Council include freedom of religion; migrants; racism; right to food; migrants; slavery; torture; and violence against women – all of these and more are apparently legitimate human rights issues.

When it comes to LGBTI issues, though, the 54-nation African Group warns us about “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.”

Shame on South Africa’s UN ambassador, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko. If something is a human right, as per our Constitution, surely we should be supportive of exactly the same rights for non-South African humans too?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.