The United Nations envoy for LGBT rights has resigned after his first year on the job, claiming that his mandate had been “heated” and “caustic” from the beginning.
In the summer of 2016, the UN Human Rights Council approved the appointment of an independent expert on the defense of LGTB rights, and in October the Council chose Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand to fill the post.
Muntarbhorn resigned from his post on Tuesday, citing an “illness in his household.”
On Friday, Muntarbhorn addressed a General Assembly committee for the first time, lauding “a global trend toward decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations,” before adding that “the gaps are, however, ubiquitous.”
The envoy reportedly found his mission frustrating, as many nations never believed that his post should exist and didn’t offer him the cooperation he had hoped for. “Precisely because this mandate was so heated, so caustic, from the beginning, my humble intention during this year was to calm the situation through quiet engagement,” he said.
From the outset, a coalition of 54 African states challenged the legality of Muntarbhorn’s appointment, asking that his mandate be put on hold. They submitted a resolution calling for the suspension of the UN’s first LGBT investigator, noting that gender identity and sexual orientation have no place in international human rights instruments.
The resolution narrowly lost a General Assembly vote by 77-86, with 16 abstentions.
Opponents of Muntarbhorn’s position accused the U.N. of disrespecting cultural mores and prioritizing LGBT issues over discrimination based on race or religion. An effort to suspend him lost a General Assembly vote by 77-86, with 16 abstentions.
Muntarbhorn had been tasked with assessing implementations of existing international human rights law and raising awareness of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), but critics suggested that his very mandate would constitute interference with the laws of many UN member countries.
More than seventy countries worldwide, and almost 40 percent of all UN member states, currently have anti-sodomy laws on their books. In Africa alone, 33 states have laws making homosexual acts a crime, including Uganda, Tunisia, Nigeria, Sudan, Gambia, Ghana and Mauritania.
Speaking on behalf of the African nations, Botswana’s ambassador told a General Assembly human rights committee last November that African nations “are alarmed” that the Human Rights Council is delving into national matters and attempting to focus on people “on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviors.”
Ambassador Charles Ntwaagae said that the Council had no business looking into “sexual orientation and gender identity,” which are notoriously absent from the United Nations charter document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Those two notions are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments,” said Ntwaagae. The UN has never adopted an official position regarding putative rights of gender identity or sexual orientation, though it does guarantee the rights of life, liberty, security, property and equal protection to all persons without distinction.
The Africa group contended that a focus on homosexual rights also takes attention away from other issues of “paramount importance,” such as racism and the right to development.
Last February, Muntarbhorn earned further notoriety by suggesting that religious liberty may have to yield to homosexual rights, declaring that “freedom of expression and religious freedom are not absolute rights and may be limited if necessary.”
Muntarbhorn added that negative moral judgments on homosexual activity were a recent phenomenon, stemming from “colonial law.”
“More recently, in colonial law, or remnants of colonial law, gays were criminalized, are criminalized, even though beforehand they were not criminalized,” he claimed during a conference last January.
When challenged about the clash between LGBT rights and religious freedom by Henk Jan van Schothorst of the Transatlantic Christian Council, Muntarbhorn said that religious freedom is not absolute and must yield to homosexual rights.
“There are some absolute rights,” he said in apparent reference to LGBT rights, “but there are some that are not absolute.” He went on to explain that “freedom of expression and expression of religion” are not absolute rights and that they can be curtailed when necessary.
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