Gay community sees New Urban Agenda as opportunity for historic acknowledgement

Habitat III negotiations see new flash point around idea of the ‘family’.

Recognition in a universal document like the New Urban Agenda would provide a step forward for those in favour of LGBT rights, advocates say. (Kref/Shutterstock)

SURABAYA, Indonesia — With discriminatory legislation on the books in many countries, some consider the fight for LGBT communities to be the civil rights battle of the 21st century. Cities, meanwhile, are often the refuge for such communities, as gay pride parades swell the streets of cities such as New York and São Paulo, Mexico City and Singapore.

As yet, the United Nations does not universally recognize the LGBT community as needing special consideration. Nonetheless, some countries and groups have been pushing for inclusion among a list of “vulnerable groups” in the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization strategy set to be adopted at this year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization. They say that such a reference, in an internationally negotiated document, would be a significant step.

Habitat III will be the third in a series of cities-focused summits that the U. N. has held every 20 years. The Habitat conferences have a history of pushing the envelope on social issues. For instance, the outcome document from the last such conference — the 1996 Habitat Agenda, which was finalized just a year after the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing — included some of the most progressive language on gender ever seen in the U. N. system.

On 19 July, UN-Habitat’s Youth Unit sponsored a “queer consultation” on the New Urban Agenda in Vancouver, which resulted in a Queer Declaration Statement. LGBT individuals face “extreme violence including mass murders, torture, beatings, imprisonment, censorship” as well as “exclusion from public life, legal protection, jobs, housing and office despite being a part of every community in the world,” said former Vancouver city councilor Ellen Woodsworth.

She said that most of this community lives in cities “in order to find some support”. Still, she noted that the shooting at a gay nightclub in the U. S. city of Orlando this summer “was a terrifying example that we are still not safe even in countries with human rights protection.”

National governments are continuing to negotiate the details of the New Urban Agenda, and Woodsworth and others are urging them to include a new Canadian proposal acknowledging homophobia in the final text.

The declaration, currently in draft form, reads: “Noting that many urban modern cities are where a majority of LGBTQI2S youth, organizations and individuals live and operate, the New Urban Agenda must look to better the lives of this community and other communities that will be most impacted by the increase in urbanization.” The declaration, which uses an expanded acronym in regard to alternative sexualities, also urges that “all nation states support the inclusion” of a reference to the community in the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

Should this effort come to pass, it could move forward a wider debate within the U. N. on whether to recognize the LGBT community. There is currently a longstanding stalemate on the issue of LGBT rights within the U. N. Human Rights Council. In that body, roughly 100 countries signed on to a 2011 resolution in support of LGBT rights, while another 50 countries put their names behind a 2008 resolution opposing such rights.

Now, recognition in a universal document like the New Urban Agenda would provide another step forward for those in favour of LGBT rights. When the term “LGBT” reaches the finish line of an international agreement, “It helps activists and U. N. agencies on the ground,” said Rikke E. Hennum with the U. N. Free & Equal campaign, an initiative of the U. N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “It gives legitimacy to activism to promote LGBT equality.”

‘Family-friendly’ debate

Last month, diplomats met in Indonesia — which is contemplating a national law to make homosexual activity illegal — in an attempt to finalize the New Urban Agenda. While the three-day talks did not yield consensus on the document, they did reveal a geopolitical chess match over LGBT rights as a coalition of countries faced hostility from more-conservative member states, backed by religious NGOs.

“When the term ‘LGBT’ reaches the finish line of an international agreement, ‘It helps activists and U. N. agencies on the ground,’ said Rikke E. Hennum with the U. N. Free & Equal campaign, an initiative of the U. N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. ‘It gives legitimacy to activism to promote LGBT equality.’”

For months, a coalition of three member states — Canada, the European Union and Mexico —  have made repeated calls for the New Urban Agenda to acknowledge the LGBT community in a list of groups facing “multiple forms of discrimination” that are delineated in the document’s “Call for Action” section. None of the three drafts of the New Urban Agenda leading up to the Surabaya talks ended up including that language, although that didn’t stop advocates from pressing their case.

“By making visible the discrimination they face every day, we can accurately take action to eradicate these situations,” said Mexico’s Adriana López. “The LGBT community is also subject to violence and harassment in public spaces that can no longer be tolerated.” Her call was backed publicly by the United States, in addition to Canada’s recommendation.

[See: Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the Habitat III negotiations]

But on the second day of talks — by which time negotiators were focusing largely on the existing text rather than recommending new language — Belarus offered an entirely new paragraph around the concept of “family-friendliness”. Egypt, Iran, the Holy See and the Russian Federation quickly threw their support behind the proposal, while also refuting any mention of LGBT because it is not “agreed language” in the U. N. system.

What exactly is family-friendliness? “We are promoting traditional family values,” Belarus’s Mikalai Dzivakou told Citiscope. When asked about LGBT rights — for example, same-sex marriage — he replied, “That is what we are against.”

Belarus is a leading member of the Group of Friends for Family, a caucus of U. N. member states that oppose LGBT rights. Instead, the countries support “the traditional family as the foundation of human civilization”, according to a press release on a Belarusian government website. They also feel that the family “should be afforded the necessary protection”, according to a joint statement delivered at the U. N.

Susan Roylance of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society endorsed Belarus’s proposal. The U. S.-based center, which is associated with the World Congress of Families, supports conservative Christian values, including that the “natural family” is “the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage”, according to the congress’s website.

“Nine paragraphs [in the New Urban Agenda] talk about ‘children and youth’ but not one about family,” Roylance said. “Family is the basic unit of society — to not even recognize they exist is critical to the discussion.” When pressed if her organization’s definition of family would include, for example, same-sex couples with children, she declined to specify, saying that each country has the sovereignty to define family in its own way.

Roylance said that her group has long viewed the Habitat arena as an important opportunity for engagement. The Howard Center sent 33 people to the previous Habitat conference — Habitat II, held in 1996 in Istanbul — which she said resulted in significant changes in the final outcome document. She anticipates a similar delegation will travel to Quito, where she says her group will be releasing a book on implementing the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Nucleus of society

Another NGO attempting to influence parts of the New Urban Agenda is the International Organization for Muslim Scholars, an affiliate of the Muslim World League, a Saudi Arabia-based organization that promotes the strict Wahabbi interpretation of Sunni Islam. (Both the Muslim World League and the Howard Center are registered within the U. N. system as NGOs.)

“Nine paragraphs [in the New Urban Agenda] talk about ‘children and youth’ but not one about family. Family is the basic unit of society — to not even recognize they exist is critical to the discussion.”

Susan Roylance
Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society

In a five-page statement the group made available to Citiscope, the IOMS expresses concern that several aspects of the New Urban Agenda contradict Islamic law. “Family in Islam (which is formed as the marriage between a man and a woman) is the nucleus unit in building society; and that the familial association at such family [sic] is considered an organizational matter which Islam is keen to achieve,” the document states.

[See: In Habitat’s birthplace, new Vancouver Declaration emerges on gender and indigenous rights]

The group also disavows any recognition of people living with HIV/AIDS as deserving of protection from discrimination — a class currently recognized by the New Urban Agenda — on the grounds that AIDS is seen as a divine punishment. In addition, the IOMS endorses a traditional view of women as caretakers of the household who must secure their husband’s permission to travel or work outside the home, and sanctions polygamy “provided it is founded on justice.”

When asked on what grounds they objected to the New Urban Agenda, a Saudi cleric named Saad Alshaharani told Citiscope, “the Islamic notion of gender”, but he declined to elaborate.

Thus far, family advocates appear to have won a minor victory, as the most recent version of the New Urban Agenda adds “family friendly” to a list of descriptors about public space, urging policymakers to “prioritize family friendly and safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces” (Paragraph 11b). Whether LGBT advocates will use this concession as a bargaining chip to leverage for other language in the New Urban Agenda remains to be seen.

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