UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. has no shortage of special rapporteurs and independent experts focused on everything from extreme poverty to child prostitution. But one new post — the independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — is challenging the routine scope of development work.
In 2018, Costa Rican jurist Victor Madrigal-Borloz became the second person to assume the independent expert post, first established two years prior. Since then, Madrigal-Borloz has conducted country visits of Argentina, Mozambique, Georgia, and Ukraine. Many places, though, remain beyond his reach.
“There has been a significant paradigm shift. When this mandate was created in 2016, the creation was very controversial.”— Victor Madrigal-Borloz, U.N. independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
“We need to bear in mind that as of today there are still 69 countries that criminalize homosexuality and tens with the death penalty,” Madrigal-Borloz said. “There are 2 billion people that live in environments where this has been criminalized, and whoever is born an LGBT person will be born a criminal, due to factors that are not under her or his control and have to do simply with who they are and who they love.”
Madrigal-Borloz will present his latest findings on inclusivity to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 24. The report also addresses the intersectionality between identifying as LGBTQ and experiencing discrimination in education and housing access, among other sectors of public life.
Madrigal-Borloz spoke with Devex recently about what it means to take on a “controversial” mandate, and how public perception of his work is evolving.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
LGBTQ people and issues have often been excluded from U.N. agreements and sidelined in programmatic work. How do you see this changing, if at all?
UN: A Tipping Point
We have seen a great paradigm shift in the last 10 years. You need to put it into context. It is only some 20 or 25 years ago that the idea of sexual orientation and gender identity became protected categories from discrimination. There has been very steady progress towards understanding the intersectional nature of the work that eradicating violence and discrimination needs to have.
It is a very difficult topic and it is one of the great conversations of the century. Many countries maintain the position, which absolutely in my view is not based on evidence, that LGBTQ people do not exist within their jurisdictions and that this is not a valiant point of entry to assess eliminating violence and discrimination.
Have you encountered member states that will not recognize your position and mandate?
Yes, of course. That is the stated opinion, for example, of Russia and Saudi Arabia.
How do you respond to that?
The idea is that I am available for dialogue with any state that wishes to engage with me. And then I raise my concerns to all states. I am always trying to engage because I think it is important to offer every possibility to avail myself of technical assistance.
How does controversy around your mandate impact your ability to get a full assessment of the needs LGBTQ people have — for example, in countries that criminalize LGBTQ people?
The problem is because it is so controversial and people are under such risk, it is very difficult to obtain trustworthy data that provides a good understanding of their situation and the violence and discrimination they suffer.
The more inclusive an environment is, the more respectful of diversity, the more it is possible to actually gather data that has been disaggregated. When that happens you actually begin to see the situation is horrifying.
I started working in this area a decade ago at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We created a registry on violence, to try to understand violence against trans women. Very soon, we understood the problem was trans women are oftentimes categorized as men. The fact that their gender identity lies at the root of violence against them was being made concretely invisible.
Latin America is one of the regions of the world where there has been a concerted effort to actually recreate datasets so that they can capture the reality of LGBT people. But you will understand how difficult it is in a context where political authorities ascertain that LGBT people do not exist.
What changes have you observed since you started this position, in terms of recognizing the importance of your mandate?
There has been a significant paradigm shift. When this mandate was created in 2016, the creation was very controversial and there were many countries that opposed the creation of the mandate, and countries that supported the creation of the mandate.
The vote was actually pretty contentious. The mandate was renewed in June of this year and what is very important and interesting is there are only 12 countries out of 40 countries that voted against the creation of the mandate. There is a very clear majority of countries that see the importance of actually having this conversation around violence and discrimination.
How do you see the U.N. moving internally on how it addresses LGBTQ issues and treats staff?
There is a reflection of the fact that this is contentious within states. The U.N. is, of course, a multilateral organization and it moves in the way that the will of states moves.
There’s been a very clear reception of the issue within the U.N., so you have organizations such as UNHCR or UN Women that have made enormous progress related to creating guidelines and policies to ensure the mainstreaming of all progress. Other agencies might be a little more resistant, as a reflection of their governing boards, but there is a definite trend towards actually ensuring these issues are well reflected within the U.N.
It is very important these political concerns actually reach the programming level. Essentially, the programming needs to be influenced by the political discussions that follow moving forward.