Amelia Cooper, representative of the British Humanist Association, writes from the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council meets three times a year, and during each session, States are able to propose resolutions that offer guidance on enhancing the human rights situation worldwide. Such resolutions are not legally binding; however, they (should) aim to reaffirm State commitments to existing treaties, encompass the nuances of developing situations, and recommend a specific course of action to be taken such that the enjoyment of human rights worldwide can be advanced.
Unfortunately, a resolution currently on the table stands in stark contrast to these idealistic clauses. An Egyptian-led initiative, backed by a ‘core group’ of supporters including Bangladesh, China, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Uganda, has addressed the international community’s need to ‘protect the family’.
This seemingly innocuous – and almost quaint – title shrouds an insidious agenda designed to undermine the principles of equality and universality that the Council is founded upon, and which, if adopted, threatens to undo the decades of progress that has been made towards equality for women, the rights of children, and, most notably, will exclude the rights of LGBTI persons. Bob Last, of the UK mission wrote that:
‘Of all the resolutions the Council could do without, the most disingenuous is the Egyptian led resolution on the ‘protection of the family’. This is widely seen as a counter strike to the Council resolution on sexual orientation’.
The notion of protecting the family as a unit is, in itself, at odds with the human rights approach. Every individual has human rights, and families are comprised of said individuals: it is therefore legitimate to ask, first and foremost, whether a resolution proposing the protection of a family unit ‘even has a place within the Council’s mandate’.
The title of the resolution implies that ‘the family’, which is later defined as ‘the natural and fundamental group unit of society’, is under threat and must therefore be guarded: this sentence in itself is testimony to the exclusive nature of the resolution. For what is, in modern society, ‘the family’? It certainly isn’t the nuclear family of past centuries, by which I mean a man, woman and their biological children. Today’s notion of a family is pluralistic, including step-parents and siblings, adopted children, same-sex parents, single parents, and families headed by grandparents to name but a few.
However, the use of the singular ‘family’ suggests that there is a superior familial structure that must be protected from these new-fangled units, and the suggestion made by a number of States to include previously agreed UN language, stating that ‘in different cultural, social and political systems, various forms of the family exist’ had not yet been added to the text. The protection of this ‘family’ will not only exclude different familial formulations, but will enshrine gender stereotypes (the father as the breadwinner and head of the family; the mother as the caregiver) which could be used to undermine the equal societal participation of women.
Furthermore, the title echoes the language used to justify the spate of anti-homosexuality legislation in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria: criminalizing the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’ is done with the intention of ‘protecting’ children, and given that the resolution states that the family has the ‘primarily responsibility for…[the] protection of children’, it seems that the core-group believes that the family itself must now be protected from anything non-traditional. Please, international community, think of the children!
It is a painful moment when you realize that, within the mechanics of the Human Rights Council – which I have held for so long as a “global good-guy” – a delicate balance must always be found between States who want inclusion and equality, and those who, quite simply, don’t.
The existing text of the resolution had frustrated and saddened me in equal parts, but it seemed that the implications of homophobia, sexism and patriarchy simply did not satisfy some members of the Human Rights Council. On Friday, ‘the Pakistan representative elaborated that the definition of family is well known to be “a man, a woman and his [sic] children.” The delegate made clear that the resolution was essential “to protect against any pollution of the family” through new ideas about family structures not recognised in law’. At the following negotiations, which I joined on Monday, the delegation of Pakistan intervened with a proposal to make explicit this bigotry, the inclusion of a paragraph:
“Acknowledging also that the right to found a family for a man and a woman implies also the possibility to procreate and live together as a married couple.”’
While we celebrate the progression of rights for LGBTI people at home, and the international community continues to recognize that any laws violating said rights stand in stark contravention to human rights law, it is easy to forget that there is a strong, reactionary backlash against equality for all. The laws passed in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia are not rare, nor are the mindsets that they reflect. ‘Homosexual acts’ are still punishable by death in 7 countries, and in over 70 countries, LBGTI persons can be legally prosecuted by virtue of their sexuality or gender identity. This resolution is just one brick out of many attempts to build a wall against equality for LGBTI.
The response of the pro-equality States during them meeting was ‘tactically (and at times painfully) cordial’, as they named a host of alternative family structures, without an explicit mention of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the UK mission’s blog post (mentioned earlier) and one of their tweets shows that the pernicious agenda of the resolution is well-recognised: perhaps their silence on LGBTI is to prevent a controversy that may swing other States away from an inclusion on the pluralism of modern families.
The resolution will be voted on at the end of next week, and it will be a crucial moment for not only LGBTI rights, but the very principles of non-discrimination in international law. Resolutions are constantly formed out of ‘agreed UN language’, and to allow the inclusion of anything with a vague semblance of Pakistan’s suggestion would be a major setback to international discourse. I have my fingers crossed that the next draft will enshrine, rather than undermine, equality, and that the pernicious agenda of this resolution can be shelved once again.