July 7, 2014

Any country committed to protecting human rights should recognise the resolution for what it is – an insidious attempt to undermine the universality of human rights, and specifically the rights of women and LGBT people.

Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director

South Africa’s inexplicable support for a regressive resolution at the UN Human Rights Council brings into question its commitment to gender equality and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

A controversial “protection of the family” resolution was passed on June 26. Not only did South Africa vote in favour, but astoundingly supported an aggressive move by Russia to shut down discussion of more inclusive “family” language.

Any country committed to protecting human rights should recognise the resolution for what it is – an insidious attempt to undermine the universality of human rights, and specifically the rights of women and LGBT people.

On the face of it, the resolution is fairly innocuous. It calls for a panel discussion and a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the topic. But the resolution has raised red flags ever since it was first introduced in March last year.

The resolution has been rightly criticised for attempting to introduce a monolithic definition of the family by jettisoning agreed-upon UN language on diverse family forms, and for protecting the “family” as a unit rather than individuals within a family.

Human rights have always been understood to accord to individuals, not social groups.

Oppression can take place within the family, especially for women, children and the elderly. According to a 2002 report by the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, “throughout the world, there are practices in the family that are violent towards women and harmful to their health. Young girls are circumcised, live under severe dress codes, are given in prostitution, denied property rights and killed for the sake of honour in the family.”

Domestic violence – that is, violence in the family – is the most pervasive form of violence against women.

The family is not necessarily a safe haven for individuals whose sexuality or gender identity differ from the social norm – far from it.

A 2011 report on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights notes: “[LGBT people] are discriminated against in the labour market, in schools and in hospitals, and mistreated and disowned by their own families. They are singled out for physical attack – beaten, sexually assaulted, tortured and killed.”

It is not the “family” that should be protected, but rather individuals within families.

The resolution refers to the “family” in singular form – deliberately excluding previously agreed upon UN language that recognises the diversity of families in various social and cultural contexts. Make no mistake, the wording was important and the monolithic use of the family is very significant.

When Uruguay proposed more inclusive language, Russia deployed a tactic – the “no action motion” – that has been used only once since 2006. South Africa supported this motion and helped close down discussion on recognition of “various forms of the family” that is standard and agreed upon language used in previous UN resolutions and in the work of treaty bodies.

South Africa recognises many forms of family. Customary marriages, some religious marriages and same-sex marriages are all recognised in law. Same-sex parents have the same rights as opposite-sex parents. So it is puzzling why South Africa would act to prevent discussion of more inclusive family forms at the UN.

“Traditional values” and “protection of the family” resolutions go together like a horse and carriage. This is the lofty rhetoric; the ugly practice is extreme legislation that seeks to curtail the rights of association and expression for LGBT people.

Discourse around “protecting children”, “protecting the family” and “upholding traditional values” has been used to justify recent anti-LGBT legislation in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda.

South Africa played a singularly important role in advancing the first resolution ever on sexual orientation and gender identity at the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.

South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation meets regularly with nongovernmental groups and the LGBT community to exchange ideas on South Africa’s role at the UN Human Rights Council.

But South Africa has failed to introduce a much-anticipated follow-up resolution and has repeatedly postponed a planned regional meeting on the issue.

Given the fact that South Africa is often a lone voice in the region, the reluctance to take a principled lead in the face of pragmatic considerations was regrettable but perhaps understandable.

But throwing its weight behind a resolution that contradicts the values enshrined in our own Constitution, including gender equality and the rights of LGBT people?

South Africa has some explaining to do.