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John Fisher
ILGA Panel at 2nd UNCHR Session

in WORLD, 07/12/2006

Struggles at ECOSOC for LGBT NGOs

This is a time of great challenge for the United Nations system as a whole.

The Council that we are all currently attending was intended to replace the Commission on Human Rights in order to bring to the process of human rights within the United Nations an attention to human rights that was less politicized, less selective, more effective than some of what had gone before. Yet as many of us well know, even today the formal sessions of the Council have been largely suspended in order to enable states to identify whether they can even reach agreement on coming to formal conclusions and outcomes for this session of the Council.

Click here to listen to the speech - or copy link at bottom of the page onto another window.

The most likely next steps are that this session of the Council, rather than being brought to an orderly conclusion, will be adjourned and continued in November 2006, in order to enable this work to move forward. It’s a difficult context within which to be advancing the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. Many states within this environment are feeling that the large institutional questions we are facing are so challenging that it’s the wrong environment within which to be advancing questions specific to those who face human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

One of the reasons I raise this broader context is because I think these struggles at the ECOSOC are a bit of a microcosm of the struggles currently being faced within the United Nations system as a whole. We’ve heard some of the challenges facing the groups as they prepared the applications and struggled with the questions of the NGO Committee. We’ve heard in terms of the challenging, trial-like process that unfolded at the NGO Committee. The next chapter was when the ECOSOC itself reviewed the recommendations of the NGO Committee, and the hearing process continued here in Geneva in July 2006. There is also the NGO Committee process as that all four LGBT organizations which were being reviewed had their applications recommended for rejection by the NGO Committee. As you probably know, the NGO Committee makes recommendations to the ECOSOC, which is then in a position to adopt those recommendations, reject them or make whatever decisions it sees fit.

So, the four organizations were each subject to a recommendation from the Committee. The four recommendations read in a very straight forward way. In relation to ILGA, for instance, the recommendation from the Committee was that the Economic and Social Council decides not to grant consultative status to the International Lesbian and Gay Association. The other three recommendations are identically worded, except that in each case the name of the other LGBT NGOs was substituted. In each case, no reason has been given for denying these groups consultative status, other than the fact of their advocacy for the human rights of those who face violations because of sexual orientation or gender identity. The only substantive ground was, the purported link with pedophilia; but in relation to virtually all of the groups there was no evidence, no material, nothing with which to draw that connection; and in relation to all of the groups it was quite clear from the constitutions and bylaws that there was no basis for such an allegation.

When the issues arose for consideration before the ECOSOC itself, virtually two entire sessions of the ECOSOC were consumed with dealing with these four applications. What I observed here in Geneva that day was probably the UN at its worst. Everything that had been raised in relation to the deficiencies of the previous Commission on Human Rights was played out again in relation to the Economic and Social Council. We saw “no action” motions; we saw procedural wrangling; we saw states who didn’t want to deal with a substance calling for suspension so there could be legal opinions prepared; we saw motions to send it back to the NGO Committee for further consideration. Ultimately, after a full day’s worth of voting on these four applications, the Council voted on everything except the actual substance of the issue before it. As a result of which, only one concrete decision was taken, which was to reject the application of ILGA; and the three other applications have been deferred to the next session of the ECOSOC, or probably the session after the next one, which shall take place in New York in December 2006.

To give some sense of the specific way in which the issues were addressed, one of the most telling applications, I think, was that of LBL, the Danish LGBT organization, which itself has been in existence since around the time of the founding of the United Nations, although not quite as long as some of the other groups, but been about 40-50 years. The first motion off the floor was a motion by Germany to reject the recommendation to deny status to the group and to grant status to the group by deleting the word “not” from the motion of the NGO Committee. So, when the NGO Committee recommended not to grant status, Germany would have deleted the word “not” and effectively granted status. There was then a substantial debate about whether this was a motion to amend a new proposition, which would require twenty-four hours’ notice and just the status of that particular application. Russia then moved a no action motion, so that Germany’s proposal could not even be considered. The Russian no action motion was defeated narrowly by the ECOSOC. The ECOSOC then moved on to consider the NGO recommendation to deny status. That was rejected.

There was then a further proposal to send the application back to the NGO Committee for a second consideration, although why a second consideration would be any different than the first consideration before the same NGO Committee that was rejected is unclear. That also was rejected.

So, we were then in the situation where the ECOSOC had voted to reject the motion to deny status, had rejected the motion to send it back to the NGO Committee. As Germany pointed out, there is only one option left, you either grant a group status, you deny it status or you send it back to the NGO Committee. The ECOSOC had already affirmatively voted to reject the decision to deny status, to reject the decision to send it back to the NGO Committee. There was only one thing left: grant the NGO status. And that caused no end of tumult, of course. That’s when we had motions to ajourn.

At the end of the day, it was deferred until the next session of the ECOSOC.

I tell all of this simply in order to demonstrate that some of the challenges that we’ve seen within the Commission on Human Rights, some of the challenges we’re currently seeing within the Human Rights Council, the politization, the seeming difficulty of addressing the substance of our argumentation on the merits have often been linked to deficiencies within the previous Commission and the hope that this will be fixed by the Council. High Commissioner Louise Arbour of Human Rights identified that, if this Council is to work, what is needed is not just a change of name but a culture shift. And I think it’s important to make the point that that culture shift is something that is not unique to the Commission, but is something which is endemic within the United Nations system as a whole, within the procedural struggles. We are certainly grateful to the allies who enabled these applications, still many of them, to be on the table to receive consideration.

It’s obviously an important struggle we are engaged in. It’s a struggle for visibility, for the rights to have the kind of badges that enable us to even walk through the doors of the United Nations, let alone take our place at the table and make our voices heard.

I’ll conclude with one comment which is a quote I always like from Gandhi, who said: First they ignore you; then they laugh at you, then they attack you; then you win.

For years many states have sought to do exactly that, to ignore us, to make us invisible at the United Nations, to prevent the Brazilian Resolution from even receiving substantial consideration and debate; at the ECOSOC to prevent the NGO applications from even being considered on their merits.

What is clear is that they have lost that battle. We are not invisible anymore. We are no longer being ignored. Our issues touch numerous aspects of the UN system. We are making our voices heard.

And I am confident that someday, and someday soon, that collectively we will win.

John Fischer
Arc International

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