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Muslim-Majority Countries and LGBT Rights at the United Nations

Suraj Girijashanker
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Muslim-Majority Countries and LGBT Rights at the United Nations

Since the mid 1990s when sexual orientation was first discussed at high-level United Nations (UN) forums, there has been incremental progress in the recognition of rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) by UN organs and bodies. These include the General Assembly, Human Rights Council, and more recently on an implicit level, the Security Council. Key milestones include the Human Rights Council passing the first resolution specific to violence and discrimination based on SOGI in 2011, and the creation and defense of the mandate of appointing an Independent Expert on SOGI in 2016, a role designed to examine violence and discrimination, and engage in dialogue with states.

Many Muslim-majority states, specifically through the bloc of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), have opposed the discussion and recognition of SOGI at the UN. Opposition from Muslim-majority states has included attempts to block dialogue and remove references to SOGI in UN resolutions. Arguments put forth by Muslim-majority states center around religious and cultural values, and the view that any such recognition of SOGI would create new norms under international human rights law. While there has been considerable coordination between Muslim-majority countries in opposing SOGI, in recent years there has been less of a consensus. This is evident in the cases of several states that have taken positions contrary to the OIC. This can be contrasted with early initiatives to recognize SOGI, where Muslim-majority states rarely broke from OIC positions.

Early Initiatives

In 1995 the UN convened the fourth World Conference on Women, which involved negotiations on the Beijing Declaration and Platform, an agenda for the empowerment of women. This was a key milestone in the discussion of sexual orientation at the UN. A coalition of non-governmental organizations lobbied for the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected status and a ground for discrimination in the declaration. However, the language was ultimately removed at the last minute in light of strong opposition from states including Yemen, Sudan, and the Holy See (Girard, 2007, p. 340). Notably, the inclusion of sexual orientation in the declaration was not supported by any Muslim-majority states.

The discussions in Beijing set the foundation for future initiatives aiming to recognize SOGI at the UN. In April 2003 Brazil proposed a resolution titled “Human Rights and Sexual Orientation” at the UN Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor to the UN Human Rights Council. The draft resolution was unique as it recognized human rights violations based on sexual orientation and called for protection of people regardless of their sexual orientation. However, discussion on the resolution was postponed by the Commission on Human Rights to 2004, and was ultimately abandoned by Brazil in light of strong opposition, including from OIC states and the Holy See. In 2004 Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the OIC as coordinator of Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, made numerous arguments against the resolution including the lack of basis for sexual orientation to be recognized under international human rights law and the risk that sexual orientation could encompass pedophilia. In a letter to UN ambassadors, Pakistan’s ambassador directly invoked religion, suggesting the resolution would “cause serious offense to the religious values of 1.2 billion Muslims as well as to the followers of other religions and faiths around the world” (ibid, p. 346). When indicating that it would not proceed with the resolution, Brazil stated that it did not want to “generate controversies with communities and countries with which (they) hold deep links of friendship” (ibid., p. 347).

It was not until 2011 that the first resolution specific to SOGI was passed at the UN. In the interim period, joint statements were issued by states in 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2011 at the Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Council, and General Assembly, respectively, addressing sexual orientation and human rights, with the latter two statements also addressing gender identity. The only Muslim-majority states to sign on to statements were Albania in 2006 and 2008, and Guinea-Bissau in 2008.

Notably, to counter the 2008 joint statement at the General Assembly, Syria read out a statement on behalf of fifty-five predominantly Muslim-majority states. Syria argued that focusing on SOGI would create new rights and lead to the neglect of other forms of intolerance and discrimination. Further, the statement suggested that the recognition of sexual orientation could lead to the legitimization of pedophilia. In addition to Albania and Guinea-Bissau, other Muslim-majority states such as Burkina Faso, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan did not sign on to the Syria-led statement (ILGA, 2010).

General Assembly Resolutions on Extrajudicial Executions (2000 Onward)

Since 2000, in recognition of the number of people killed on the basis of their sexual orientation, the third committee of the General Assembly, which focuses on social, cultural, and humanitarian issues, has adopted a resolution biennially on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions with explicit reference to sexual orientation. Since 2012 the resolution has also included reference to gender identity (United Nations A/RES/67/168). While the resolution was passed without a vote in 2000, in subsequent years OIC states and members of the African Group, a regional lobby at the UN, have proposed amendments to remove references to SOGI. In 2010 an amendment proposed by the African Group to remove sexual orientation was passed at the third committee. Notably, no Muslim majority states voted against the amendment. However, following mobilization of civil society, the resolution was introduced to the full General Assembly, which ultimately voted to reinstate sexual orientation in the resolution.

More recently in 2016 Uzbekistan, on behalf of the OIC, put forth an amendment to remove reference to SOGI from the resolution on extrajudicial executions, which was ultimately unsuccessful. The breakdown of votes from Muslim-majority states suggested that they did not have a uniform position on SOGI, particularly in comparison to 2010. In 2016 Albania and Turkey voted against the amendment; Kazakhstan and Nigeria abstained; and Mauritania, Somalia, and Turkmenistan did not vote.

Human Rights Council Resolutions on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (2011 and 2014)

In 2011 South Africa sponsored a resolution at the Human Rights Council, which focused specifically on violence and discrimination on the basis of SOGI. The resolution called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to commission a study on the impact of violence and discrimination based on SOGI and for a panel to be held to discuss the issue during the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council. While the resolution passed by a margin of twenty-three votes in favor and nineteen against, no Muslim-majority countries voted in favor of the resolution. Burkina Faso abstained.

In 2012 the first ever panel focusing on violence and discrimination on the basis of SOGI was held at the Human Rights Council as called for by the 2011 resolution. Saeed Sarwar from the Pakistan Mission, speaking on behalf of the OIC, associated sexual orientation with “licentious behavior” which he stated was against Islam and called for the discussion “to be the last of its kind in the Human Rights Council” (ILGA, 2012). The majority of OIC and African Group members then proceeded to stage a walkout at the session.

In contrast to her delegate’s position, Pakistan’s Human Rights Commissioner, Hina Jilani, who was one of the panelists, spoke against culture and tradition being used as a “shield” for human rights violations (UN, 7 March 2012). She further suggested that progress was possible in challenging contexts, citing the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to recognize transgender persons’ right to identity (ibid). Navi Pillay, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also appeared to direct comments at members of the OIC and African Group members, stating “[t]he balance between tradition and culture, on the one hand, and universal human rights on the other, must be struck in favor of rights” (ibid.).

In 2014 a second resolution on SOGI was proposed by a group of Latin American states at the Human Rights Council. The resolution called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct a follow-up study on violence and discrimination based on SOGI. The resolution passed with twenty-five votes for and fourteen against, a bigger majority than in 2012. However, the divides between voting blocs largely remained the same. OIC members, barring Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso, which abstained, argued that the resolution sought to impose “uniculturality.” The majority of OIC members, led by Egypt, proposed five out of the seven amendments tabled in order to remove references to SOGI from the resolution, and introduce a new paragraph referring to cultural relativity and state sovereignty (ARC International 2014, p. 20). None of the amendments passed and the resolution’s intent and purpose was not impacted.

The Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

In 2016 a group of Latin American states introduced a new resolution on SOGI at the Human Rights Council. The resolution built on the progress from the previous resolutions in 2011 and 2014, and called for the creation of the mandate of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on SOGI. The mandate was designed to examine violence and discrimination and engage in dialogue with states. As with previous resolutions, much of the opposition came from Muslim-majority states, with the exception of Albania.

Saudi Arabia initiated proceedings against the resolution by tabling a no-action motion that argued the resolution’s content was problematic and did not warrant discussion. The no-action motion was rejected by fifteen votes in favor and twenty-two against, and nine abstentions (ARC International, 2016, p. 20).

Pakistan, on behalf of OIC states then proceeded to propose eleven amendments that aimed to alter the intent and focus of the resolution. The amendments called for the removal of SOGI from the resolution’s text. Additionally, the amendments sought to include clauses concerning cultural relativism and regional cultural and religious values. While the amendments that sought to strip the mandate of its specificity failed, amendments relating to cultural relativism and value systems passed (ibid., pp. 22–34).

The resolution ultimately passed at the Human Rights Council with twenty-three votes for, eighteen against, and six abstentions. No Muslim-majority states voted in favor of the resolution, barring Albania. While explaining its vote, Albania chose not to address the OIC arguments against the resolution, but emphasized its support for universal human rights (ibid., p. 63).

As the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, the mandate of Independent Expert was not yet secure. Human Rights Council resolutions are compiled and reviewed by the General Assembly in a document known as the Report of the Human Rights Council. Resolutions and the report are frequently adopted by the General Assembly, without significant debate (OutRight Action, et al., p. 4). However during the seventy-first session of the General in November 2016, states from the African Group used the procedures surrounding the adoption of the report to challenge the mandate of the Independent Expert. This challenge resulted in six separate votes on resolutions and resolution amendments across two General Assembly committees and plenary sessions. Much of the support for the African Group’s efforts came from Muslim-majority states. However, as the General Assembly consists of all UN member states, the lack of uniformity in Muslim-majority states’ position was more apparent than at the Human Rights Council.

In November 2016 the African Group circulated a draft resolution before the third committee of the General Assembly, which included a paragraph calling for the deferment on the 2016 Human Rights Council resolution to ascertain the legal mandate of the Independent Expert. In response, a group of Latin American states tabled an amendment to prevent deferral, arguing that the mandate had already been determined at the Human Rights Council. The Latin American amendment was passed with eighty-four votes for, seventy-seven against, and seventeen abstentions, preventing the deferral of the resolution. Egypt, on behalf of the OIC, spoke against the mandate of the Independent Expert. The Egyptian delegate acknowledged that protection from violence and discrimination against any individual or group was recognized under international human rights law, but resorted to familiar arguments that the mandate seeks to create new rights and impinges on social, cultural, and religious sensitivities (ibid., pp. 34–35).

A breakdown of votes on the Latin American amendment, however suggests that numerous Muslim-majority states did not share Egypt’s position. Albania and Turkey voted in favor of the amendment; Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, and Somalia abstained; and Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan did not vote.

In December 2016 the amended third committee resolution was debated at the General Assembly. The African Group brought an oral amendment to the resolution, which again called for the deferral on the resolution. The amendment was defeated by a close margin of eighty-four votes against, seventy-seven votes for, and sixteen abstentions. The positions of Muslim-majority states to the oral amendment was similar to proceedings at the third committee. However, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, and Sierra Leone adopted different positions, voting in favor of the amendment. Additionally, Gambia, which had previously voted against the Latin American amendment in the third committee, did not vote. As with the Latin American amendment in the third committee, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan did not vote. While it is difficult to determine the basis on which states did not vote, the consistency in position from these states suggests it could be a conscious decision.

As a final challenge to the mandate to appoint an Independent Expert, an oral amendment was proposed by Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group to block funding for the role in the fifth committee of the General Assembly, which deals with budgetary matters. The amendment was rejected by the fifth committee, with eight-two votes against, sixty-five in favor, and sixteen abstentions. The General Assembly Plenary then considered the resolution, and the same oral amendment was proposed by the African Group and failed, with a similar voting breakdown to the fifth committee amendment. While most Muslim-majority states voted in favor of the African Group amendments, as with previous attempts to block the mandate, there was not a uniform position among states. Taking on similar positions to previous votes were Albania and Turkey, which voted against the amendments; Kazakhstan abstained and did not vote; and Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan did not vote. Other Muslim-majority states that did not vote were Guinea-Bissau and Somalia.

Following a final unsuccessful challenge, the mandate of the Independent Expert was safeguarded. However, it should be noted that several Muslim-majority states, led by Egypt, have refused to recognize or engage with the Independent Expert (ARC International, 2016, p. 71). In practical terms this has been reflected in a lack of engagement in consultations and the two reports the Independent Expert has delivered.

The UN Security Council

The Security Council is the primary UN organ responsible for maintaining international peace and security. However, SOGI has been largely absent from its agenda, barring two notable exceptions, both of which have involved the participation of Muslim-majority states.

On 24 August 2015 the Permanent Missions of the United States and Chile convened an arria-formula meeting, an informal meeting where Security Council members can privately exchange views, to discuss the targeting of LGBT people by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The meeting included presentations by two gay men from Iraq and Syria, and the organization Muslims for Progressive Values, which called for the protection of all marginalized groups impacted by conflict, including LGBT people. Thirteen out of the fifteen Security Council member states attended the arria-formula meeting, including OIC members Jordan, Nigeria, and Malaysia (Schindler, 2015). The remaining OIC member on the Security Council, Chad, did not attend the meeting. While Nigeria and Malaysia did not make comments during the meeting (Hamzić, 2018, p. 85), it is reported that the Jordanian delegate made a remark that included “favorable words about the LGBTI community” (ibid.).

On 13 June 2016, following a terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, all members of the Security Council issued a statement condemning the attack. The statement was significant as it recognized that the attack “targeted persons as a result of their sexual orientation” (UN, 13 June 2016). Notably, Egypt, which has often led OIC opposition to SOGI resolutions, was a member of the Security Council at the time.


  • ARC International. Appointing an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: An Analysis of Process, Results and Implications: 32nd Session of the Human Rights Council June 13–1st July, 2016. arc-international.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/HRC32-final-report-EN.pdf.
  • ARC International. Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and intersex related developments at the 27th session of the UN Human Rights Council 8–26 September 2014. arc-international.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/ARC-report-HRC27.pdf.
  • Girard, Françoise. “Negotiating Sexual Rights and Sexual Orientation at the United Nations.” In SexPolitics: Reports from the Front Lines, edited by Richard G. Parker, Rosalind Petchesky, and Robert Sember, pp. 311–358. Rio de Janeiro: Sexuality Policy Watch, 2007. Provides context to the earlier negotiations on sexual orientation at the UN, including at the fourth World Conference on Women and the 2003 resolution Brazil proposed on sexual orientation.
  • Hamzić, Vanja. “International law as violence: competing absences of the other.” In Queering International Law: Possibilities, Alliances, Complicities, Risks, edited by Dianne Otto. London: Routledge, 2018. Offers a critique of the arria-formula meeting at the Security Council focusing on the targeting of LGBT people by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
  • International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). “Islamic States, Africans Walk Out of Historic UN Gay Rights Debate,” 11 March 2012. ilga.org/islamic-states-africans-walk-out-of-historic-un-gay-rights-debate.
  • International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA). “Response to SOGI Human Rights Statement, Read by Syria—18 Dec 2008. 10 March 2010. ilga.org/response-to-sogi-human-rights-statement-read-by-syria-18-dec-2008. The statement provides a summary of arguments that have been frequently used by Muslim-majority states against SOGI at the UN.
  • OutRight Action International, International Service for Human Rights, International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, and ARC International. Defending the Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly. https://www.outrightinternational.org/sites/default/files/ OutRightGAA4_V5_LR.pdf.
  • Schlindler, Paul. “UN Security Council Gets Briefing on ISIS Murder of Gays.” Gay Star News, 25 August 2015. gaycitynews.nyc/un-security-council-gets-briefing-isis-murders-gays
  • United Nations. “Security Council Press Statement on Terrorist Attack in Orlando, Florida.” United Nations, 13 June 2016. https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12399.doc.htm.
  • United Nations Human Rights. Office of the High Commissioner. “A stain on our collective conscience,” 7 March 2012. www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/LGBTPanel.aspx.
  • United Nations Human Rights. Office of the High Commissioner. Human Rights Council panel on ending violence and discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, Geneva, 7 March 2012, Summary of Discussion. www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Discrimination/LGBT/SummaryHRC19Panel.pdf.
  • United Nations Human Rights. Office of the High Commissioner. United Nations Resolutions—Sexual orientation and gender identity. www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Discrimination/Pages/LGBTUNResolutions.aspx. A compilation of Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions that address sexual orientation and gender identity.
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