UN's new gay rights advocate unfazed by opposition

Mr Muntarbhorn's job is to address and combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Mr Muntarbhorn's job is to address and combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • Nations may outlaw same-sex relations, execute gay people and oppose the very existence of his job, but the United Nations' first investigator tasked with combating violence and discrimination against gay and transgender people is undeterred.

Even countries perceived as the most virulent opponents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights may have pockets of openness and tolerance, said Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, the UN's new gay rights independent investigator.

Mr Muntarbhorn's job - to address, protect against and combat violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity - was created by the UN Human Rights Council despite strong objections from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

African states then sought to have his work suspended, but their effort was overridden by Latin American and Western nations at the UN last month.

Still, Russia and Egypt, speaking on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, have said they would not recognise Mr Muntarbhorn's mandate nor cooperate with him.

"What is important from my perspective is not to see countries or governments as monolithic," Mr Muntarbhorn told Reuters.

"If you start to liaise and bridge-build, you will also find niches where you will find people who are more open," he said.

"So my approach has always been that I must dialogue with, I must interlink with, those who might say no to the mandate from the start."

More than 70 nations have laws against same-sex relations, and hundreds of LGBTI people have been killed and thousands injured in recent years, the UN has reported.

Yet, one country might take entirely different approaches , leaving room for progress, said Mr Muntarbhorn, 64, an international law professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

He has served on several UN bodies, including inquiries on Syria, and as a special rapporteur on North Korea.

Unable to change their legal identities, transgender people face issues from access to toilets to job and immigration rights, he said.

Nor are the rights and expectations of the LGBTI community the same across the world, he said.

Along with violence and discrimination are issues such as rights to marry and adopt.

Some intersex people, meanwhile, who identify as neither male nor female, are concerned they are seen as abnormal, he said.

Mr Muntarbhorn said that he does not look at his task in terms of how many people he might represent around the world.

"One person might be affected 10, 20, 100 times, bullied at a young age... be laughed at, tortured, ultimately killed and defamed at the same time," he said. "How many violations can you count?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'UN's new gay rights advocate unfazed by opposition'. Print Edition | Subscribe