A Timeline: LGBT Rights and International Organizations

Global development of human rights protections for LGBT people has followed a torturous path over the last seven decades, and has only really begun to take shape in the last 20 years. Even today, with the United States and others pushing harder for such protections, international organizations like the UN have remained largely confined to monitoring abuses and advocating better legal treatment.


The United Nations (UN), with a charter that calls for “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,” is established.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted by the UN General Assembly. It is not a legally binding document, but sets a standard of achievement to be sought by all member nations.


The Organization of American States (OAS), a regional body now consisting of the 35 nations of the two American continents, creates the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the Americas.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is adopted by the UN General Assembly as a multilateral treaty. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document requires that rights be recognized regardless of race, religion and other factors, but does not mention sexual orientation or gender identity. It also guarantees the right to marry, although same-sex marriage is not mentioned.


The ICCPR takes effect after being signed by the required number of countries.


The World Health Organization decides to remove homosexuality from a list of mental disorders in the International Classification of Diseases, a change that first appears in its 1992 edition. “Transexualism,” however, is still listed as a “gender identity disorder” under “mental and behavioral disorders,” a classification that remained as of press time in 2013.


Nicholas Toonen of Tasmania, an island that is part of Australia, files a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee alleging that Tasmania’s anti-sodomy law, which he argues only applies to gay men, is a violation of his rights under Articles 17 (right to privacy) and 26 (equal protection before the law) of the ICCPR. The Tasmanian AIDS Council, under pressure from the Tasmanian government as a result, fires Toonen from his job as general manager.


The UN Human Rights Committee rules Australia is in breach of non-discrimination obligations of the ICCPR treaty. In response, the Australian commonwealth passes a law overriding Tasmania’s criminalization of homosexual sex. Toonen v. Australia becomes a landmark human rights complaint and an oft-cited reference used by the committee and other treaty bodies in rulings. In the wake of the Toonen decision, UN experts become more active in working against abuses of LGBT people, although the decision technically applies only to the Tasmanian case.


Brazil presents a resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights calling on states to promote and protect the human rights of all people regardless of sexual orientation and expressing “deep concern” about violence against LGBT people. The Brazilian resolution also calls on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to be more attentive to human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation. The resolution elicits strong opposition, and further discussion is postponed until the next commission session in 2004. 


Brazil withdraws its resolution in the face of stiff opposition from a variety of quarters, including the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Vatican, and a network of Christian organizations based in the U.S. and elsewhere.


The first “International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia,” coordinated by the Paris-based IDAHOBIT Committee, is held on May 17 to raise awareness of LGBT issues and to commemorate the day in 1990 that the World Health Organization decided to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder from the International Classification of Diseases.


Meeting in Indonesia, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Service for Human Rights and human rights experts from around the world adopt the Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Although the 29 principles were meant to guide the UN and other governmental bodies, they are not adopted by member states and therefore have no legal authority.

June 2008

The OAS approves a resolution titled “Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity” that expresses concern about violence directed toward LGBT people in the Americas and instructs the OAS’s Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs to include the resolution on its agenda when addressing the UN General Assembly. The document is remarkable because some of the countries that support it are Caribbean nations that still criminalize homosexual sex.

December 2008

France and the Netherlands, on behalf of the entire European Community, sponsor a non-binding declaration in the UN General Assembly, backed by 66 European and Latin American countries, condemning homophobic human rights violations. (That number had risen to 97 at press time in 2013.) An opposing statement, drafted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and supported by 57 countries, calls the declaration an attempt to normalize pedophilia, among other things. The Bush administration declines to support the French declaration because, it says, that might be seen as an attempt by the U.S. government to interfere with states’ rights. At press time, neither statement had yet garnered the needed number of signatures, and therefore neither is official. Still, the French/Dutch declaration is the first in UN history to explicitly suggest that human rights protections should be extended based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and it is hailed by human rights activists.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference tries, and fails, to remove “sexual orientation” from a formal resolution introduced at the UN by Sweden that condemns summary executions based on sexual orientation.

March 2009

The Obama administration announces that it will support the French/Dutch declaration of 2008, reversing the Bush administration’s position.

November 2010

In a vote seen as a great disappointment by human rights activists, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee removes “sexual orientation” from the 2008 Swedish resolution that addresses summary, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions. Middle Eastern, Caribbean and African nations including South Africa vote for the deletion, even though South Africa’s 1996 constitution includes explicit protections for LGBT people.

December 2010

Approving an amendment proposed by the United States, the UN General Assembly restores the reference to “sexual orientation” in the Swedish resolution addressing summary executions.

June 2011

South Africa submits a resolution to the UN Human Rights Council condemning human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the first UN document to focus on such violations. The resolution also requests that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights draft a report that details the situation of LGBT citizens worldwide. The resolution is approved and the report is published in December. It finds that 76 countries have laws that criminalize people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, with five using the death penalty. UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay calls for repeal of all these laws.

November 2011

The OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights creates the Unit on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Persons to build support for protecting LGBT rights in the Americas.

December 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the UN’s Palais des Nations on International Human Rights Day about violence and discrimination against LGBT people, and announces a new Global Equality Fund to support groups working on LGBT issues. On the same day, President Obama issues recommendations to end anti-LGBT violence and discrimination worldwide.

December 2012

“Leadership in the Fight against Homophobia,” a special event to commemorate International Human Rights Day, is held at the UN, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denouncing violence against LGBT people. The event is organized by Human Rights Watch, the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

March 2013

The 57th Session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women ends without any resolutions mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, expresses disappointment.

The UN Human Rights Committee issues a report noting that Belize “lacks any constitutional or statutory provision expressly prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity” and calling on it to review its constitution and legislation. The committee also expresses concern about “reports of violence against LGBT persons” and asks Belize to submit a report on these issues, as required for those nations that, like Belize, signed the ICCPR treaty. At press time, Belize had yet to submit its report.

April 2013

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs announces a strategy for engagement on LGBT issues in the Western Hemisphere. It includes expansion of public outreach and awareness, collaboration with multilateral partners, and direct engagement with other countries.

South Africa and Norway host the International Conference on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, where 200 governments and NGOs discuss introducing a second sexual orientation and gender identity resolution at the UN. The conference concludes with a call for a special UN mechanism to monitor human rights abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

May 2013

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issues an anti-homophobia video message. “The Riddle” is posted on the OHCHR’s YouTube channel.