(Geneva, 2 October 2017) In an historic first, the United Nations Human Rights Council has voted to condemn the imposition of the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations.
The 47-member Human Rights Council passed the resolution – “The question of the death penalty” – on Friday, September 29, with 27 States voting in favour, 13 against and 7 abstentions [1]. The resolution asked countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty to ensure that it is not “applied arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner” and that it is not applied against persons with mental or intellectual disabilities and persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime, as well as pregnant women. It also condemns the imposition of the death penalty for apostasy, blasphemy and adultery.

“It is unconscionable to think that there are hundreds of millions of people living in States where somebody may be executed simply because of whom they love” said Renato Sabbadini, Executive Director of The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). “This is a monumental moment where the international community has publicly highlighted that these horrific laws simply must end.”

As ILGA’s 2017 State-Sponsored Homophobia report highlights, there are currently six States (eight if we count the parts of Syria and Iraq still occupied by Isis) where the death penalty is implemented for same-sex relations, a further five where it is technically allowed (if not actually invoked), and one where it has not yet been implemented. [2]

More than a decade ago, the now-disbanded UN Human Rights Commission passed a series of resolutions that included a call on States that still maintained the death penalty to not impose it for sexual relations between consenting adults. [3] The United Nations General Assembly also passes a resolution every two years in New York on “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions” where, amongst other things, it urges all States to investigate killings of persons because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This resolution in Geneva is the first by the UN Human Rights Council – the body that replaced the Human Rights Commission – that condemns the imposition of the death penalty by a State for consensual same-sex relations.

The resolution also expresses serious concern that the application of the death penalty for adultery is disproportionately imposed on women.

The entrenched patriarchy and gender stereotyping behind adultery laws are the same causes behind laws that seek to criminalise and execute persons for consensual same-sex relations. And these laws don’t just affect those with non-normative sexual orientations. Trans and gender non-conforming persons also face oppression and violence because of them. We stand together in solidarity,” said Ruth Baldacchino and Helen Kennedy, co-Secretaries General at ILGA.

The resolution builds on a recent report by UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the question of the death penalty where he examined its disproportionate impact on different groups and its discriminatory use based on gender or sexual orientation. [4] The report and subsequent resolution examined the disproportionate impact of the use of the death penalty on other groups too: economically vulnerable individuals, foreign nationals, those exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, and the discriminatory use of the death penalty against persons belonging to racial and ethnic minorities as well as its use against individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities.

The resolution was brought on September 29 by a group of countries from across the globe as the Human Rights Council started the final day of its 36th session. Six attempts by Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia to amend the resolution and dilute its impact were each defeated in often-close voting at the Geneva-based body. [5]

“We are grateful for the leadership of the eight countries that brought this resolution – Belgium, Benin, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia and Switzerland – countries that come from every corner of the globe showing truly cross-regional support. They stood firm on principle through a difficult negotiation and voting period”, said André du Plessis, Head of UN Programme and Advocacy at ILGA.

ILGA worked together with other civil society organisations in the run-up to the adoption of the resolution to persuade States to keep the language. None of the failed amendments directly sought to remove the clauses condemning the use of the death penalty for adultery, apostasy, blasphemy or consensual same-sex relations.

Notes to editors:

[1] The text of the resolution is available here

[2] Out of the six, in four the penalty applies country-wide (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen), and in two (Nigeria and Somalia) it applies in certain provinces. In a further two the death penalty is carried out by non-State actors in Daesh-held ((ISIS / ISIL) territories in northern Iraq and northern Syria.
There are another five States where interpretation of Sharia, or where black letter law, permits the death penalty technically, but where it is not to our knowledge invoked. In these States operate civil codes where lesser penalties are indicated. (Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and the UAE).
Brunei Darussalam has not yet triggered its criminal procedure code, thereby stalling the introduction of its second and third phases of the 2014 Syariah Penal Code Order, and as such the threatened death penalty has not yet been implemented.

[3] E/CN.4/RES/2002/77; E/CN.4/RES/2003/67; E/ CN.4/RES/2004/67; E/CN.4/RES/2005/59

[4] A/HRC/36/26, available online here

[5] A full breakdown of the votes on each proposed amendment as well as the final vote is here