Photo by max_thinks_sees.

In June 2011, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted L.9/Rev.1, the Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (Resolution). It is the first UN resolution to address the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The Resolution, put forward by South Africa amidst widespread anti-LGBT activity in Africa, brings attention to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and also demonstrates that the rise in violence against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people will not be tolerated.

The Resolution reiterates the fundamental rights to freedom and dignity to which every person is entitled per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It requests that the High Commissioner of Human Rights conduct a study documenting discriminatory laws, practices, and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. A panel discussion will be held following the study, during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council in 2012, with the goal of assessing how international human rights law can be used to combat LGBT discrimination, and also to consider discrimination eradication strategies for the future.

Numerous African states have opposed the Resolution, which narrowly passed with twenty-three states in favor and nineteen opposed. Among the nineteen states voting against the Resolution, nine of them were African; they include Angola, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda. The Resolution has aroused backlash from several of these states. In reaction to the proposed resolution, Nigeria claimed the proposal is contrary to the beliefs of most Africans, and a Mauritanian diplomat deemed the resolution “an attempt to replace the natural rights of a human being with an unnatural right.”

In addition to vocally opposing the Resolution, a few African leaders have continued to allow and even promote anti-LGBT legislation within their countries. For example, Senegal continues to criminalize homosexuality in its Penal Code despite its ratification of the ICCPR and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which require states to protect and promote the rights of all citizens equally. Several African states, including Mauritania, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, treat homosexual acts as crimes punishable by death. Most visible in recent years is the controversial proposed legislation in Uganda calling for various punishments of all who commit homosexual acts and those who support them, including the death penalty. In total, thirty-six African states have laws criminalizing homosexuality.

LGBT discrimination and violence directed at LGBT individuals is particularly rampant in sub-Saharan Africa, with torture, imprisonment, and murder of LGBT-identified individuals occurring most frequently. Additionally, the sexual assault of lesbians in an attempt to change their sexuality, referred to as corrective rape, is common, especially in South Africa. Some of these violations are permitted by African states that have maintained anti-sodomy laws since colonization and have failed to punish perpetrators of hate crimes.

In contrast, South Africa, where corrective rape is prevalent, has taken the lead on combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. South Africa originally passed a constitutional prohibition against LGBT discrimination in 1994, and in 1996, the Constitutional Court overturned anti-sodomy laws because of their inconsistency with its reformed Constitution. Moreover, in addition to sponsoring the Resolution, South Africa is currently the only African country to allow same-sex marriage.

Despite overwhelming African opposition and only a modicum of support within the region, LGBT activists recognize the Resolution’s signal of support for LGBT rights and celebrate the UN’s first resolution addressing LGBT discrimination. After years of inconsistent positions on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity, civil society groups are proud that South Africa has set a standard for other African countries to attain. Human rights activists applaud the Resolution and the attention to human rights violations based on sexual orientation, and encourage UN member states to comply with international standards.