While Egypt conducts wholesale persecution of sexual and gender minorities at home, its United Nations representatives are undermining universal human rights by using the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people as a wedge issue.
Egypt claimed to speak on behalf of the Africa Group at the UN when it refused to engage with Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), on the eve of his first report to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. Egypt also said the African group “made an unequivocal statement last year not to recognize the mandate of the independent expert on SOGI.”
But diplomats from South Africa, an influential Africa Group member, say Egypt was not speaking for them. When Egypt spearheaded a challenge to the expert’s mandate last year, South Africa’s UN Ambassador, Jerry Matjila, affirmed core human rights principles by citing the history of institutionalized discrimination in South Africa: “We will fight discrimination everywhere. We cannot discriminate against people who are LGBTI.” And last week South Africa expressed wholehearted support for expert’s report, calling for more dialogue. South Africa is not alone. Despite Egypt’s efforts to ignore the mandate, African states were well represented when Muntarbhorn presented his report. Addressing violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is also in line with resolution 275 of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights that condemns such violence and calls for perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Egypt’s latest crackdown against LGBT people is extreme by any standards. After several young people raised a rainbow flag at a concert, Egyptian authorities arrested at least 64 people, mostly men, on charges of “debauchery” and “inciting debauchery.” Some were subjected to forced anal exams, a form of torture, and sentenced to long prison terms. One young man was sentenced to six years because photographs on his phone showed that he had attended the concert. Think of it. Six years for being near a symbol. And he is but one of over 300 men and transgender women imprisoned by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on such charges.
South Africa has already stood up at the UN against discrimination and defended the expert's work. South Africa has much to be proud of at home on this issue and should keep standing up for those same principles at the UN. But it can do more to challenge Egypt’s claim to speak on behalf of a continent – above all, by stating loudly and clearly that when the Egyptian delegate blasted the rights of LGBT people, he wasn’t speaking for Africa but for his own country’s repressive and isolated leadership.