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(Geneva) - The United Nations Human Rights Council has taken a landmark step forward by addressing for the first time violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch said today. The council, in the session that ended on June 17, 2011, also sent a strong signal that human rights violations in Belarus should end, but mustered only a muted response to the crisis in Yemen and no mention at all of Bahrain's continuing crackdown, Human Rights Watch said.

Affirming the fundamental principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the council passed a resolution expressing "grave concern" at the discrimination and violence experienced by people all over the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The Human Rights Council has taken a first bold step into territory previously considered off-limits," said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. "We hope this groundbreaking step will spur greater efforts to address the horrible abuses and discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity."

The resolution also calls for the UN high commissioner for human rights to commission a global study on human rights violations on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. When completed at the end of 2011, this report should provide important guidance on how existing human rights law can be used to end violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch said. The council will discuss the report at its session in March 2012.

The resolution was introduced by South Africa and co-sponsored by 42 countries from all regions of the world. It was passed 23 to 19, with 3 abstentions.

"In 1996, South Africa set an example to the world by including ‘sexual orientation' in its constitution," Reid said. "Now South Africa has led the UN to help create a global environment in which the human rights of LGBT people are protected."

After years of neglecting the dire human rights situation in Belarus, the council acted in response to an upsurge in abuses following presidential elections in 2010 by asking the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to monitor the situation and report to the council in March 2012. It also encouraged human rights experts appointed by the council to monitor specific issues, such as freedom of expression, independence of judges and lawyers, and torture, to "pay particular attention to the situation in Belarus" and to contribute to the report. The resolution was adopted 21 to 5, with 19 abstentions.

"The council's resolution on Belarus sends a clear message to President Lukashenka that repression in the country must stop," said Julie de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. "Belarus should respond to the UN's concerns with immediate human rights reforms, and by releasing all political prisoners and allowing human rights monitors in the country."

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Côte d'Ivoire also reported at this session of the Human Rights Council. The commission documented serious violations of international law in Côte d'Ivoire - including war crimes and potential crimes against humanity - by armed forces on both sides. The commission called on the new government of President Alassane Ouattara to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to address root causes of the conflict, including discrimination, and to help restore security by rapidly disarming thousands of men linked to groups that took part in the conflict who will not become part of the armed forces.

The commission particularly emphasized the need for impartial and transparent judicial proceedings against those who committed grave crimes, with assistance from the Human Rights Council, the United Nations, and international donors.

In response to the report, the council appointed an expert to follow up on implementation of the commission of inquiry's recommendations.

"If the council is truly committed to carrying out the recommendations of its own commission on Côte d'Ivoire, it should push for the 2004 Commission of Inquiry report on that same country to be made public," de Rivero said. "As the 2011 commission recognized, release of the earlier commission report, which documented grave crimes still unpunished from the 2002-2003 armed conflict, is a key step to securing accountability in Côte d'Ivoire."

In response to attacks on peaceful protesters across the Middle East in recent months, the council adopted a general resolution that focused on the protection of human rights during peaceful protests, and reminded countries of their responsibility to prevent such violations. But the council failed to call for accountability or condemn specific governments, such as Bahrain or Yemen, for repressing protesters.

The council continued to review the situations in Libya and Syria that it had previously addressed in special sessions. It extended the mandate of the commission of inquiry that was set up in March 2011 to investigate human rights violations in Libya. The commission will present a preliminary report on its findings at the council's next session in September and a final report in March 2012. Human Rights Watch called for all sides to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and hold those responsible for violations accountable.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the council that Syrian authorities had failed to respond to her request to send a fact-finding mission to the country, as the council had asked her to do at a special session in April. The council had called on Syria to "cooperate fully with and grant access" to the mission.

The high commissioner said she would try to fulfill the fact-finding mandate by sending a team to southern Turkey, where thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed the border. 

"By blocking access for journalists, human rights groups, and even the UN, Syria only confirms that it has plenty to hide," de Rivero said. "It is time for the UN Security Council to back up the council's request for access, and condemn the ongoing violations in Syria." 

The Human Rights Council welcomed Yemen's decision to invite the OHCHR to visit the country, but failed to speak out on the violent crackdown there. Human Rights Watch has documented 167 deaths in attacks by security forces and pro-government assailants on largely peaceful protesters since February and believes the number could be considerably higher. The high commissioner is scheduled to report on the visit to Yemen at the council's session in September. While the council will discuss the situation in Yemen at that time, its failure to address the ongoing violations during this meeting is inexcusable, Human Rights Watch said.

"The UN's determination to investigate violations in Libya and Syria is laudable because it contributes to making authorities in both countries accountable for the abuses they commit," de Rivero said. "But the council's muted response to other situations where protesters have been gunned down, including Bahrain and Yemen, undermines its credibility and raises doubts about its ability to deal firmly with abusive governments, no matter who their allies are."

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