In 2023, ILGA World celebrated the 10th anniversary of its United Nations programme.

In 2023, ILGA World celebrated the 10th anniversary of its United Nations programme.

For this new episode of Making Rainbow Waves, ILGA World sat down with Kseniya Kirichenko, our UN programme manager, to retrace the history of how the organisation has engaged with international human rights spaces throughout its existence, navigating these global fora to uplift the voices of grassroots organisations and civil society worldwide. “The human rights idea is our shared idea”, she told us. “It is something that does not just belong to governments, something that does not just belong to the United Nations: it is about us, and about our lives.”

Transcription of the episode: “Celebrating the 10th anniversary of our United Nations programme”

00:07 (intro)

Making Rainbow Waves

00:14 (Host)

Making Rainbow Waves is a podcast by ILGA World in which we tell the stories of LGBTI human rights defenders worldwide. And this one is a special episode for us because we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of our UN program. Our guest today is actually the program manager of our UN program, Kseniya Kirichenko. Welcome, Kseniya.

00:35 Kseniya Kirichenko

Thank you, Daniele. It’s a really nice experience to be here.

00:40 (Host)

Great. Thank you, thank you so much for joining us. And as I said, today we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of our UN program. So, actually, my first question for you is really if you could tell us the story of how the program was created and how it developed during the years.

00:57 Kseniya Kirichenko

Yes, sure. Well, I was with ILGA World, working for ILGA World, since 2016. But I also know the story behind it, at least some part of it, and I’m happy to share it with you. And well, speaking about the history of ILGA and the UN program at ILGA, we also need to think about the history of civil society or NGOs at the UN. Because initially, of course, the UN was created as a state-centered mechanism institution machine. But then with time, more and more mechanisms for civil society to engage were created.

Initially, or I would say… Let’s say in the late 80s, 90s, the participation of civil society within the UN spaces was related to ECOSOC status. And when ILGA initially didn’t have this status, we still already started to engage with the UN.

As a UN nerd, I did some research some time ago and I found really old documents that already mentioned ILGA or people who were speaking on behalf of ILGA. And one of the first such experience was in 1992:

We haven’t had yet at that point the ECOSOC status, but Douglas Sanders, who unfortunately passed away a year ago, he participated there already through Human Rights Advocates, the organisation that had ECOSOC status at this point.

And he made a speech at the Commission on Human Rights, now Human Rights Council, but at that point it was called Commission on Human Rights, and in 1992 he was telling that there is ILGA; at that time with only 500 members. And he also said that: gay and lesbian people live in all the countries in the world, they are a part of the population, but at the same time are not represented at the UN. So, he requested basically the representation of gay and lesbian people at the UN. Also, he mentioned that by that point ILGA already had engagement with the WHO, the World Health Organization, and contributed to the Fernand-Laurent study on sexual minorities.

So, it was also a very interesting document, a historical document that ILGA contributed to. And if people are interested in the history of LGBTI rights, I think it’s really like a gem for all the nerds like me.

03:27 Kseniya Kirichenko

This study was from the late 80s, and it was perhaps the first official UN document and a report on the topic. And while it’s sometimes funny, because it’s still 1980 And it says things such as, for example: “lesbians are the counterparts of homosexuals in the female world, and they usually meet their partners in the homes of friends”. So, it’s a little bit weird and funny.

But still, already in this report, there were chapters on lesbians and chapters on trans people. And ILGA was able, already there in 1980s, was able to contribute to this report. So that was one of the first appearances of ILGA in 1992.

Then a year after, already on behalf of ILGA, because at that point we had ECOSOC status, also Douglas Sanders again participated and shared that our representatives, about a dozen open lesbians and gay men from Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Germany, Mexico, Peru, and the United States (so different countries, not just the Global North), participated in the World Conference on Human Rights. The 1990s was a decade of World Conferences on Human Rights: the Vienna Conference, the Beijing Conference focusing on women’s rights, and we were there already.

So that was also a little bit of history and, well, that’s how things were initially developed. We didn’t have for a long time a dedicated UN program. But this changed in 2013, 10 years ago, with ILGA World first hiring the UN advocacy and program manager André du Plessis, who is now with Outright – but yes, André was the first specific UN employee at ILGA World.

05:18 Kseniya Kirichenko

And then also, at that time, ILGA World moved from Brussels to Geneva, and one of the reasons was also to, you know, to leave the European institutions to ILGA-Europe, and also for us, ILGA World, to work closely with the United Nations, which is based in Geneva.

So that was one of the reasons also why the office moved. And then soon after that, one and then another person was hired to do work on UPR Human Rights Council and Treaty Bodies. And then in 2016, I joined ILGA, initially as an officer working on treaty bodies and special procedures.

So that’s where my herstory with ILGA World started as an employee, because I was working for member organisations before. But yeah, so that’s already a part with my presence. And now I’m the UN program manager, I’m leading the program. When I joined, we only had three people working for the UN program, André, who was the manager, and then Diana, who was doing work on UPR and Human Rights Council, and I was doing Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures.

Today, we are four people who are working full time for ILGA. So, it’s me, myself, who is managing the program, and I’m doing treaty bodies work; we also have Gabriel leading our UPR and Human Rights Council engagement; We also have Guillermo, who is doing Special Procedures work, and SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, so it’s also the addition to our portfolio.

And then last, but not least, we started to do more systemic work on implementation of UN recommendations, so we have Gitau, who is leading our National Advocacy Engagement, plus also two Junior Professional Consultants and one consultant specific for Treaty Bodies. So yeah, we grew quite a lot during this decade and even before, and I’m happy to be a part of this process

07:18 (Host)

Thank you so much. It’s really fascinating to go through all the story of our engagement with the United Nations. And I know, actually, that there are also other parts outside of human rights-specific Bodies. For example, I know from our history the then Co-Secretary General Lisa Power, in 1991, for example, raised homosexuality – and she was the first out person to do that – as the United Nations in New York, as part of the ILGA delegation that went to the ECOSOC NGO committee and that was about ILGA’s membership application.

So, there are literally bits and pieces of ILGA’s history all around the history of the United Nations in the past 30 years. And it’s really fascinating because my next question, actually, is: from your unique vantage point, how do you describe how the United Nations has helped advance the recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people throughout all these years?

08:15 Kseniya Kirichenko

It’s a good question. And, of course, because the idea of international human rights law, at least from this positivistic view, it’s connected directly to the United Nations, we have core human rights instruments that protect human rights adopted at the UN, at the United Nations, and therefore the UN has contributed enormously to the development of the discourse of human rights.

The idea and the establishment of LGBTI rights or SOGIESC human rights was also happening at the United Nations. And, well, the beautiful part of it is that, because it’s a universal system, a global system, the standards, when they are formed, they are not formed just in one country. But they’re spreading throughout the world, and the perfect example is the decision on the Toneen case.

So: Toneen v. Australia is a groundbreaking case from 1994 when the Human Rights Committee for the first time recognised that criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual acts between, well, men for Australia, is a violation of the international human rights, specifically the right to privacy. But this decision that was made against Australia, this decision influenced a lot of legal jurisprudential developments throughout the world. And just to mention that this decision was cited by regional and national courts, by the European Court of Human Rights, by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. And, also, by different courts – from India and Nepal to the Philippines and Fiji, to Colombia to South Africa and Zimbabwe. So, it’s a really very strong standard that was developed in 1994 at the UN, by the UN, and then traveled globally.

And today we see that, despite the fact that LGBTI people, LGBTI human rights and SOGIESC, are not explicitly mentioned in the human rights conventions, the treaty bodies and other bodies of the UN that interpret that implement these conventions, they made LGBTI human rights language their own language. For instance, the Human Rights Committee, which is monitoring the implementation of the International Cabinet on Civil and Political Rights: today they literally do LGBTI recommendations on every country under review. So, every country is asked about LGBTI rights, and this is the part of the human rights language today, now, for sure.

10:54 Kseniya Kirichenko

Or we can also think about special procedures. These are groups of independent experts, or individual independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, and they are more flexible because they are not really bound by the convention’s texts. But they were really those who developed the language speaking for the first time about corrective rapes, for instance.

One of the latest reports by the Special Rapporteur on Health where she introduced and explained what is the inclusive non-binary approach to gender-based violence. So, really, we’ve seen how the language was formed, how it is developing, how it is adapting to new concepts and the living realities of our communities.

But also, I think that it’s not just the UN. So, it’s not just the UN that decided one day that we want to protect LGBTI persons’ human rights, of course. I would dare to say that behind all these victories, there are real people, LGBTI activists, and movements. The Toonen decision, if we talk about this decision, it was brought by an activist from Australia. And a lot of other victories or developments were also supported by activists.

12:13 (Host)

Thank you for this very thorough explanation. I think this is important, not just for you and other self-proclaimed nerds, as you have described yourself during this conversation, but as you said, all of this, even if it sounds remote and abstract to many, it has real-life implications for people and on our communities. So, it’s really important to make it known.

And as you said, over the years, ILGA World’s UN program has supported hundreds of human rights defenders and grassroots activists to engage within UN spaces. So, can you describe a little bit the work that we as an organisation do with them?

12:53 Kseniya Kirichenko

Sure, thank you, Daniele. And I think that the basis of our approach as a membership organisation is to share our privilege and to provide this space, to give this space to activists. So, I think that this is the basis. And our mission, if you want, is to really support those working on the ground. So, we are not just developing strategies sitting in Geneva and then, you know, just imposing them on activists in different parts of the world. But we are trying as much as possible to ground all our efforts in the needs and realities of the movement.

And what we are specifically doing with this principle: We provide training on technicalities on how to engage with the UN. Because ultimately, of course, it’s the activists who are experts on their own situations, the country’s situations. Then they know what is happening, they know what the problems are. But sometimes the UN can sound like really this ‘huge monster’ that’s only available to governments or international human rights lawyers with, I don’t know, Oxford diplomas or whatever. Wh. This sometimes is true, but also: civil society now, today, after all the years, has much more space to engage with the UN. And our task is to explain how to use this system, because sometimes it can really be, well, not super easy, but it’s not rocket science.

So, what do we do? We provide training, we help activists to put their demands, their needs into the UN language. We also help them sometimes, when needed, to write reports to the UN, because there are also, you know, some tips and tricks, how to present the situation, how to formulate recommendations, what examples, what illustrations to use to prove the point, and so on and so forth. Then also we are helping activists to come to Geneva or to New York, and to engage with these spaces. Because one thing is, of course, to write a report or to submit a communication to the UN. But it’s also important to give the advocacy a human face and to talk to UN representatives because after all, they’re also humans. And it’s important to have the opportunity to talk to them, to explain to them what is important, why it’s important. We have seen a lot of very interesting examples of such advocacy; so, we’re also bringing activists to UN spaces, and we help them to engage with the friendly UN representatives, such as committee members or officers of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights or Special Procedures and so on and so forth.

15:45 Kseniya Kirichenko

Then also we help with the implementation of UN recommendations when needed. So, we also have some best practices, good practices, related to the implementation of the recommendations. And in doing so, we are also trying at least to use an intersectional approach and to give space to people who may be usually not that present within the movement as well.

For instance, we had projects in the past when we worked with LGBTI people and groups with disabilities, and we engaged with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We also prepared quite a lot of submissions on the intersection of race and SOGIESC. So, we are also trying to work from this perspective. Also, to support trans groups, to support intersex groups, to support LBTQI women’s groups. So that’s how we do it.

And, also, to make sure that we are not only focusing on the so-called Global North, but we support as well, and maybe first of all, groups from other parts of the world.

17:03 (Host)

Thank you. Thanks for that. I have to say that I’ve been watching all your work on the side, documenting your work on the side for all these years also. And one of the best parts of our work, I think, is also to get to know all these activists who do such an amazing work on the ground, and to support them in the way we can.

There is one thing that one of these activists said one time that has really stayed with me over the years, she said: The United Nations need us more than what we need the UN, because without civil society, the United Nations doesn’t really know where to look when it’s time to address the practical matters. Right?

So, I was wondering whether you have a memory or an engagement with an activist or a moment in all these years of works that has particularly stayed with you.

17:52 Kseniya Kirichenko

Yes, yes! I have so many memories, of course, and so many examples of really beautiful projects, advocacy campaigns, passionate fighting for LGBTI human rights. So, it’s really difficult to pick one moment. But maybe I would share this story, herstory, and it’s maybe not very traditional for the UN, but still.

So, it was a few years ago, we were at Palais des Nations, the main building of the UN here in Geneva. And there was an activist from Angola, a feminist queer activist. And it was something like, you know, quite traditional; a panel where people were speaking in microphones, and there was an interpretation and there were diplomats in costumes. But then after the meeting, we just stayed together, the civil society group, and I was talking to her and we were just like chatting about how to organise this advocacy, how to make it more meaningful for LGBTI communities. And she took a book from her bag and showed me this book and it was bell hooks, All About Love. And she told me “Well, this is, I think, how we need to do our advocacy”.

So that was such a beautiful moment… And this connection between our, you know, foremothers, our all the people who stand behind us and all the people who developed these ideas who were fighting for intersectional justice. So, yeah, that’s how bell hooks became about the UN for me.

And like she said, for example, awakening into love can only happen as we let go of our obsession with power and domination. And I think this is exactly about what we are doing. Because for me, this domination and formal power is already there, and the UN is also to some extent it’s about there. But when we do our advocacy, I think that we need to think about love as a healing force. And love as a longing for communion and to do it together as a movement, and to share this love, and to show this love in a broad sense to the United Nations and to change even the meaning of the power, the formal power, and to bring our understanding into these spaces.

So, that’s, that’s the story.

20:23 (Host)

Thank you, that’s really beautiful.

20:25 (Interlude music playing in the background)

20:35 (Host)

And, yeah, speaking about community, I think one of the greatest achievements of civil society worldwide at the UN within SOGIESC issue has been really, you know, civil society coming together and advocating for a mandate that specifically addresses violence and discriminations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The mandate was first created in 2016. But of course, that’s the result of years-long battle and commitment. And now we’re seven years in the existence of the mandate. So how would you describe the impact of the mandate having been so far? And how do you see ILGA World support in the mandate continue going forward?

21:16 Kseniya Kirichenko

Yeah, here I have another story, just to say that even the establishment of the mandate is already a very important point. So, I was engaged with LGBT human rights long before I joined ILGA and in the beginning of … maybe it was 2013 or 2014, there was a convening here in Geneva with the activists, LGBT activists, working in different countries. And we were here talking about how we would love to see the UN, the world, how we can use human rights. Then someone said “Well, ideally, we would have a convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” and we were all laughing because it sounded like a very utopic dream. Then, someone says “Well, let’s be a little bit more modest and maybe we can have a special rapporteur on SOGIESC,” and everyone was also laughing, saying “maybe not in this era, maybe not in this century.” But then just two, three-years after that, the mandate was actually established.

In 2016 for the first time on the global level at the UN we managed – together with efforts by, yes, friendly governments and sister movements, other movements – we managed together as a collective effort to establish this mandate. And during the seven years of the existence of this mandate we’ve seen a lot of important achievements made by this mandate, through this mandate and thanks to this mandate. It can go from, you know, just establishing connections with difficult subjects. Because, for instance, Victor Madrigal, the previous already mandate holder, was speaking to different groups, to religious groups in countries that he was visiting, and he was speaking to difficult governments, to subjects that sometimes are not really accessible to LGBTI movements or activists; but he was able through his position, through sharing his power, sharing his privilege. So, he was able to establish connections and to talk, or at least to open the dialogue.

But we also have seen, you know, bills that were postponed or not adopted with the engagement of the independent expert on SOGI, who was explaining that these bills are against human rights. And then it goes to really very simple stories of sometimes life saved through communications, but not only. But I know of the stories when people are still with us just because the independent expert intervened at the right point. And this is a huge support for all of us. This is about also mainstreaming the SOGI language, mainstreaming LGBTI human rights.

24:15 Kseniya Kirichenko

Also, I would say that throughout the seven years of the mandate, a lot of very important critical conversations have started, and have been opened, for example, on intersectionality. What does intersectionality mean for LGBTI human rights? For example, colonialism is a very important topic for our movement and for LGBTI human rights, and this is one of the latest final reports of Victor Madrigal. So, I hope that with the new mandate, with the new years of the mandate, we’ll be able to gather with the movement, with activists. We will be able to develop further these important concepts, these important ideas of intersectionality, of decolonial approach, and to also show how it should look like in practice, how it should look like for the lives of real people on the ground.

So, I think that was very important and of course we will continue working with the new mandate and building bridges when needed between grassroots activists and the UN system and this mandate.

25:18 (Host)

We’re almost at the end of our conversation today. But maybe one last question would be: With all that’s happening in the world these days, I think that trust in the effectiveness of international human rights law seems to be at a very minimum. So, how do you think that global human rights spaces like the United Nations can restore people’s faith in the power of international human rights law and the mechanisms that the global community has established?

25:55 Kseniya Kirichenko

Thank you for this difficult question. I think that, of course, the United Nations is not a magic pill. It is the United Nations. And it is the system mechanism institution focused on governments with everything that goes from there. But, also, it’s a system where we create and develop human rights. And I think that the human rights idea is our shared idea, something that does not belong to governments, something that does not just belong to the United Nations, but something which is about us, and which is about our lives.

And I think that the human rights discourse is a discourse. It’s created and owned by civil society as well. So, if we talk about ILGA specifically, in our constitution, the constitution of ILGA World, you can open it and see the conventions, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. So, we even adopted these conventions. We put them into our Constitution because that’s about our values. And of course, the UN has a lot of weaknesses, especially since we see it right now. But also, sometimes we can use these to challenge the systems of patriarchy, of ableism, of cisheteronormativity, of racism, through this system-through the United Nations mechanisms.

And I think that, you know, human rights are also a discourse. We can challenge the system already by our participation there. And sometimes it also can be a healing experience, and I know it for myself from my own experience, from my personal experience. But I’ve also seen it with other people, other activists. Sometimes even going to this system and talking about your pain, telling about situations when you haven’t been seen, when your community was discriminated, marginalised, and having the approval in a way, having the recognition of the violation, it already can be healing. Especially when your own government, your own country, really just excludes you from all these discourses and the ideas of human rights.

28:14 Kseniya Kirichenko

So, sometimes the recognition of the violations by the United Nations is already something very important on a personal level, on the community level. It’s also creating history, writing histories down. The stories of people from our community who were suffering, sometimes killed, not to make these experiences just disappearing, but writing them, keeping them, putting them into the human rights language through the UN mechanisms, through the courts, through the cases, and so on and so forth.

Also, sometimes it can be really just pressure, or additional instruments for national authorities, when we know that, for example, we need certain legislation. When we know that we need to develop, for example, healthcare system to make them friendly and accommodating for queer women, for lesbian women, for trans women, for trans people, for non-binary people, intersex people. And then we know that we need training. For instance, training education for healthcare professionals, and we can use the United Nations system for this, and to go to, for example, UPR, or treaty bodies, and to explain that this is the problem in our country, and we want a recommendation, we want a discussion with the state authorities to make this happening, to make changes happening.

And then, because it’s like a high-level discussion with the participation of civil society, we can also reach out directly to, for instance, health ministers in certain countries, and to have this discussion. And this discussion, not just from activists, but the discussion initiated by the UN system. So, from this perspective the UN can be used to balance a little bit the power dynamics and imbalance existing between the state, the community, and activists. And this UN power can be also shared with activists through these experiences.

30:16 Kseniya Kirichenko

So that’s what I see. But also, human rights and the UN because I think that we need to… well it’s not just like I think we need to, but I see human rights as also something that belongs to us. And this discourse is also our discourse. We are in power of changing this perspective because, as I said, it’s not just the UN who wants to develop LGBTI human rights, but it’s what we bring to the UN human rights discourse. How we talk and develop a decolonial, feminist approach, intersectional feminist approach? How do we want to deal with the discrimination and violence, but also the systems of oppression and intersecting systems of oppression in terms of human rights.

And this is also about solidarity. Solidarity is a very important point,I would say here. This is also part of our work. And recently, with all the horrible things that were happening at the UN and in the world, what is really great and healing for me is to see how we build solidarity with other movements. For instance, ILGA World works a lot with the Center for Reproductive Rights. We also work with the Sexual Rights Initiative, IWRAW Asia Pacific. So, all these feminists, for example, organisations who are also targeting the same systems of patriarchal oppression that we do. And when we are together, of course, we are stronger, and we can support each other.

So, I think that LGBTI human rights advocacy should also be, and maybe first of all, should be about solidarity. Understanding that, for instance, abortion is also a queer struggle. Understanding that, you know, queer fight for justice is also about queer Ukrainians, queer Palestinians, and all the people who suffer. Because after all, it’s all about domination and power structures. So, that’s what is important for me: to be able to use this human rights discourse, but also understand that it’s a shared value. It’s something that we share together. It’s not just a shared pain, but it’s also shared values with other movements and with the intersectional identities and movements within our own movement.

32:37 (Host)

Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s really great to hear the passion in what you do, and what not only you, but all the UN program does, and all our colleagues, and all the skills, and the capacity, and the commitment that you all put into everything that you do. And I think that’s, together with what other organisations are doing, what in the end will be truly transformative. So, here’s to that!

32:59 Kseniya Kirichenko

Thank you, Daniele. And if anyone wants to know more about the UN, if there are any activists who want to engage with the UN system or want to know more about how to do it, we are here to support you and just reach out to us to see what we can do together.

33:15 (Host)

Thank you, thank you so much.

33:17 Kseniya Kirichenko


34:32 (Outro)

Making rainbow waves is a podcast by ILGA World. This episode was hosted by Daniele Paletta and edited by María Alejandra Gonzales Silva. You can find every episode on all streaming platforms or on ilga.org. Thanks for listening.