22 November 2016
South Africa opposed members of the African Group in the United Nations General Assembly yesterday to uphold the appointment of an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity by the UN Human Rights Council.
Earlier this month the African Group, of which South Africa is a member, delivered a statement to the UN General Assembly opposing the appointment.
Then gay rights groups in South Africa penned an open letter to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) asking South African representatives to the UN to vote against a resolution proposed by the African Group that would have suspended the appointment of the Independent Expert.
The authors of the letter condemned South Africa’s then-failure to explicitly distance itself from the position of the African Group, a block of African countries in the UN that issued a statement arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity “should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments.”
According to the UN’s website, the vote took place late yesterday, with 84 countries, including South Africa, voting in favour of keeping the Independent Expert, 77 voting against, and 17 abstaining. Cape Verde and Seychelles were the only other two members of the African Group that voted in favour. (A few African countries didn’t vote at all.)
Sanja Bornman, chairperson of the Hate Crimes Working Group and a member of Lawyers for Human Rights, said the vote is a step in the right direction for LGBTIQ activism globally.
“We are very pleased, and relieved, by the SA vote,” she said in an email. “Now the … Expert can proceed with his mandate, which will benefit LGBTIQ people around the world, including the African continent.”
Melanie Judge, a queer activist and an associate professor at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, said the vote was an important reflection of South Africa’s principles. “Historically, our government has played a leading role to advance the human rights of LGBTI people, both regionally and internationally, and yesterday’s vote reasserted a commitment to this and should thus be welcomed by all South Africans,” she said in an email.
Still, gay rights groups are questioning why South Africa did not take a direct and outward stance against the position of the African Group when its resolution was first proposed, Bornman said, and these groups plan to engage with DIRCO in the future to explore this issue and gain some insight.