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“TIME TO STEP UP EFFORTS” FOR INTERSEX PEOPLE, THE UN HEARS

October 2023 has marked yet another milestone in how international bodies are looking at the rights of intersex persons.

During the ongoing 54th session of the UN Human Rights CouncilFinland, Chile, South Africa, and Australia have led a group of more than 56 States from all regions of the world, calling to “increase efforts to combat violence, harmful practices and discrimination on the basis of sex characteristics.

Civil society has also taken the floor: 25 intersex-led organisations worldwide and another 98 LGBTI and human rights groups highlighted the need for “further data and global action” to “address these human rights violations”. The statement also reiterated the call on states to ban non-vital, medically unnecessary surgeries and harmful interventions on individuals with innate variations of sex characteristics.

 

What do we talk about when we talk about intersex?

Intersex people are born with variations of sex characteristics (such as genitals, reproductive organs, hormonal and chromosomal patterns) that are more diverse than stereotypical definitions of male or female bodies. Up to 1.7% of the global population is born with such traits; yet, because their bodies are seen as different, intersex children and adults are often stigmatised and subject to harmful practices – including in medical settings – and discriminated against.

 

This is not the first time that similar calls have echoed in United Nations fora. Over the past few years, the work of civil society and States alike has built tremendous momentum for the human rights of intersex people. But this time, things could take an even more decisive turn.

 

The image shows a photo of the blue-decorated building of Room XX at the United Nations in Geneva.
The text reads: “Human rights of intersex persons – Civil society organisations worldwide ask the UN Human Rights Council to present and adopt a resolution”. The ILGA World logo sits at the bottom right of the image.

 

What’s new: civil society organisations are calling for a resolution

Through their statement, civil society organisations have asked the Human Rights Council to “present and adopt a resolution” requesting “a study with recommendations and a compilation of best practices on eliminating discrimination and violence, including harmful practices, against intersex persons.”

Within the United Nations system, resolutions carry significant weight. These are official UN documents proposed by member States; for the Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution means to decide on a specific matter and allocate resources.

Resolutions are important to develop international human rights standards on a specific topic, instruct the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to produce reports, and create mandates for human rights experts on specific issues or country situations.

Should member States listen to the request of civil society, a resolution could lead to an official, specific report on the human rights situations of intersex persons. This would be an absolute first, and a publication to which grassroots organisations could contribute significantly. An official United Nations report would raise awareness of the issue in a way that States could no longer ignore.

The statement delivered by civil society organisations during the 54th UN Human Rights Council, calling for a resolution to address intersex human rights violations. Accessibility: captions available in English and Spanish

How the UN has addressed the human rights of intersex people

A timeline

  • 2015: the OHCHR convenes the first Intersex Expert meeting
  • 2016: a group of UN human rights experts and mechanisms joins forces with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and the Council of Europe, urging to end violence and harmful medical practices on intersex children and adults
  • 2019: OHCHR publishes a background note focusing on human rights violations against intersex people
  • 2019: The Human Rights Council adopts a resolution on discrimination in sports mentioning the “rights of women with differences of sex development”
  • September 2020: A cross-regional group of 35 UN Member States delivers the first joint statement on the human rights of intersex persons
  • July 2021: OHCHR presents a report on discrimination in sports, featuring specific recommendations on intersex issues. Meanwhile, the African Group delivers a joint statement stating that “Segregating women on the basis of intersex variations has the same effect as apartheid – one of the international crimes against humanity”
  • September 2021: A cross-regional group of 53 UN Member States delivers a second joint statement on the human rights of intersex persons. From the civil society, 76 organisations across the world encourage the Human Rights Council to do more: “Unless immediate action is taken, severe human rights violations against intersex people will prevail and continue.”
  • September 2022: With the support of various stakeholders, Finland co-organises an event on the right to health of intersex persons.

 

October 2023: an event mapping good practices in protecting the human rights of intersex persons

On 5 October 2023, another event at the Human Rights Council will focus on the rights of intersex individuals. Co-organised by ILGA World, Intersex Asia, OII Europe, Intersex Nigeria, and IHRA, with co-sponsorship from OHCHR and the Permanent Missions of Chile, Finland, Australia, and South Africa, the event will bring together a diverse array of voices to discuss and advocate for the human rights of intersex persons.

During this event, speakers will provide information on the developments of human rights violations, protections, and progress related to intersex persons – both globally and at the regional level. They will also share evidence-driven data, publications, and other resources which will equip attendees with the information to effectively act upon the violation of the human rights of intersex people, and call attention to various established initiatives, projects, tools, and good practices related to civil society advocacy supporting intersex people.