The United Nations passed a historic resolution late on Thursday to set up a first-of-its-kind watchdog against violence and discrimination on the basis of gender identity (GI) and sexual orientation(SO).
The so-called SOGI expert will coordinate with countries to mitigate oppressive gender and sexuality practices, a move that experts hail as for the first time, the world body is emphatically saying Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people undeniably have human rights that cannot be violated.
India abstained from the vote despite having a prominent voice on the 47-nation human rights council that was voting on the issue.
In not backing the resolution, New Delhi joined a clutch of African countries with a history of violence against gender and sexuality minorities, Bangladesh, where LGBT activists were hacked to death two months ago and Saudi Arabia, where human rights violations regularly make international headlines.
The abstention made clear two things. One, that the government doesn’t see its LGBT population as equal citizens and views the violence faced by them as a non-issue. This is part of a broader pattern that has seen the Narendra Modi government not back any LGBT-friendly resolution in the UN in its two years in power.
In September 2014, India abstained on a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity at the human rights council. In March 2015, India joined Russia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia against extending marital benefits to same-sex couples.
India’s lack of participation in the vote is dispiriting for the country’s sexual and gender minorities as it comes close on the heels of the prime minister refusing to acknowledge that the victims of the Orlando massacre last months were LGBT people, while expressing sadness about the worst mass-shooting incident in recent history.
The vote betrays the confusion within the ruling party on Section 377 that criminalises LGBT lives and is a blot on India’s human rights record. While prominent ministers such as Arun Jaitley have spoken out in favour of repealing the colonial-era law, the government has appeared mostly quiet on the matter.
The silence suggests the government views the violation of LGBT people’s rights as not an important-enough issue despite mounting evidence of rampant bullying, harassment and discrimination meted out to these communities in their homes, offices, schools, colleges and public spaces. Even progressive judicial verdicts on extending benefits to the vulnerable transgender community have met with stonewalling clarifications and poor implementation.
The second conclusion from the abstention is that India now doesn’t view human rights as a legitimate ground to command global power and respect. The LGBT vote came days after India’s failed bid for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The SOGI resolution offered a chance for India to assume a leadership role on an issue with international focus but New Delhi chose the safer option of not getting involved.
Contrast India’s response to that of Mexico that marshaled the resolution through numerous hostile amendments and spoke out in length on the necessity of a watchdog to protect LGBT rights, no doubt motivated by the murder of seven people at a gay bar in May. Or to the decisions taken by a newly independent India under prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that made strong strides to be recognised as a prominent voice on human rights and non-violence.
The final vote tally showed India breaking away from countries such as France, Germany, United Kingdom and many Latin American nations, exposing the fact that New Delhi’s loud proclamations about being an international player didn’t extend to the human rights arena. But India voted in favour of at least two amendments that restricted the scope of the watchdog, betraying what the country’s intention was.
For decades now, India has claimed to be a global power on the back of its resurgent economy and south Asian heft. The proclamations have become louder after Modi assumed office with rock-star shows in many foreign countries he has visited since 2014. India has launched several high-profile initiatives and Modi’s supporters say a renewed global respect for the country has been one of the prime minister’s biggest achievements.
But becoming a global superpower is impossible only on the back of one’s economic agenda unless we start to realise that our human rights record also play a factor in how the world views us. Spiralling violence against minorities, Dalits and women and a silence on the oppression of LGBT people can only hinder India’s aspirations to be taken as a strong global player.
India is in dubious company because of Section 377 and is among a handful of countries that criminalise LGBT lives, a fact that cannot be brushed under the diplomatic carpet.
Going forward, countries are supposed to cooperate with the UN watchdog, facilitate reports and fact-findings and consider recommendations to end violence and discrimination. One can only hope India will treat these steps with maturity and work towards recognizing the rights of its LGBT citizens, while not dismissing legitimate international criticism of its laws such as Section 377. In doing so is the only way India can truly assume global significance.
(The views expressed are personal.)