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In what was described as a dramatic milestone by human rights activists working on the promotion and protection of human rights on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, members of the United Nations at the 32 session of the Human Rights Council voted a resolution that provides a new mandate for an independent expert that will be responsible for reporting violence suffered by people on the grounds of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, globally.

The resolution rode of the back of previous SOGI resolution that was tabled by South Africa and supported by Brazil and Norway in 2011 as well as a follow-up resolution led by four Latin-American States in 2014. The resolution for the mandate of an independent expert on Sexual orientation and Gender Identity aimed to continue to push SOGI agenda into the discussion of States at the UN Human Rights Council. The challenges of people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons continues to receive very cold reception at the Council and some activists have observed continue rejections and unwillingness by States to protect and promote the rights for all- especially when its relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. This frustration amongst others has led activists lobbying at the United Nations Human rights council to push for a resolution through member States – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay- that are empathetic to the discrimination and violence that the LGBT persons face globally. It is important to note that some of these States have been involved in the previous resolution of 2011 and 2014 respectively. A significant shift in the support of Member States is the consistent blacksliding South Africa for instance. During the last Friday’s debate, South Africa claimed that the resolution for a new mandate of an independent expert on SOGI promotes exceptionalism in the broader human rights movement. The word exceptionalism is often used to criticise the LGBT human rights movement for not wanting to engage in mainstream activism for the promotion of human rights. However, it is needful to recognise that with or without exceptionalism LGBT human rights are less considered as human rights by the mainstreaming. In most situations where exceptionalism has been used to characterise the LGBT human rights movement, it has been to imply that SOGI rights lobbyists are advocating for special rights. But, how true is this?

Interestingly, it should be acknowledged that not even the global LGBT rights movement agree on its strategy at the UN Human Rights Council. Notably, is the statement led and released by the Coalition of African Lesbians to go against the proposition of an independent expert on SOGI. While the arguments are considerably cautionary, it risks trending on the old fashion of advocating for LGBT rights at the UN. Very clearly, some of us are very impatient to see the issue of violence faced on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity being discussed for the value that it has, at the Council.

For many years, SOGI rights lobbyists have been loyal to the concept of intersectionality in human rights promotion- thus continued to work hard in ensuring that SOGI languages are included in resolutions and especially other independent experts’ reports. It is true indeed that SOGI related violence is not in isolation but it is also a fact that they often go under reported. Of course independent experts of the other issues could also report on SOGI issues- this new mandate should not stop that- but do they report on it sufficiently? There exist the following independent experts for instance: Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Special Rapporteur on the issues of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment – the mandate was changed to Special Rapporteur in 2015 (HRC res 28/11), Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The list goes on. There are up to 41 thematic mandates and indeed SOGI issues could be creatively situated in any of them but SOGI lobbyist would have to spend extra resources convincing mandate holders to see through the SOGI lenses. Some LGBT activists have argued riding on the same route of inclusiveness by advocating for an independent expert (or working group) on sexuality and gender. But, one dare say that we have rode on this route several times and here we are still.

The interesting thing about the independent expert mandate is that it will provide a real focus on SOGI issues, one that will not be easily side lined in hot discussions. The locus of discussion will now be “SOGI in relation to other issues” and not “other issues in relation to SOGI”. Furthermore, it is a win-win situation to both disagreeing camps of the global LGBT movement. SOGI issues can continue to be raised by other mandate holders and even by the independent expert on sexuality and gender when it gets established. Now that we have the independent expert on SOGI, it will further facilitate the precipitation of SOGI issues during discussions at the UN Human Rights Council.

The resolution for an independent expert on SOGI related issues has not come easy and the mandate will not be for the weak. Given the very slim support that led to the result of 23 in favour, 18 against and 6 abstentions, the work of the mandate holder will be challenged, as some States already expressed not cooperating with the mandate holder if eventually the resolution is passed. This calls for a careful celebration by LGBT human rights activists and their allies. The possibility of the mandate holder not being able to report on the “red” countries is imminent. While it is clear that SOGI related violence is global and it is unnecessary to polarise the situation by country or region, we know that some States should be held with a “strong hand”- as it is said in my country of origin, Nigeria.

The event of last Thursday is joyful but many of my friends are asking is what would real success look like at the grassroots?

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