There Is No Place for Anti-Trans Agendas in the UN
We express grave concerns over the series of harmful statements made and actions1 taken by the current UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, Reem Alsalem. To our dismay, the Special Rapporteur has persistently advocated for additional obstacles and conditions to legal gender recognition that undermine the rights protections of trans people, rather than calling for bodily autonomy for all. Instead of strengthening protections of marginalized groups and contributing to progressive legacies of previous Special Rapporteur and feminist movements that untiringly advocated for the creation of the office, we witness that the current Special Rapporteur is misusing her position and power to advocate for discriminatory policies against trans people and misapplying established human rights principles and frameworks.
We are alarmed that the Special Rapporteur has weaponized “protection of women’s rights” to advocate for positions that misrepresent and regress from international norms and standards. In advocating for “single sex spaces” and increased barriers to legal gender recognition, the Special Rapporteur has also called for the “return” to an understanding of violence against women that is “based on their female sex”2 and upholds “sex-based rights.”3 Not only does this deviate from a feminist and scientific understanding of “sex” as being socially constructed, rather than fixed, essentialist, binary, biological and based on physiological characteristics. It is also contrary to international human rights standards that have evolved considerably to address discrimination based on gender45 which has been defined as a social construct “....that justifies inequality and provides a means to categorize, order and symbolize power relations.”6 In opposing the use of gender based discrimination to justify harmful policies against trans people and protect women’s “sex based rights,” the Special Rapporteur perpetuates and mirrors arguments and strategies used by states in the UN who increasingly oppose the use of “gender” in intergovernmental negotiations and other UN policy spaces.
We reject the co-optation of the human rights framework, particularly the notion put forward by the Special Rapporteur that the fulfillment of the rights of trans women and cis women is or can be conflicting and incompatible7. We denounce the mandate holder’s grave misuse of the feminist concept of ‘intersectionality.’8 In doing so, the Special Rapporteur actively undermines the principles of the universality and indivisibility of rights, and goes against our values as feminists.
The Special Rapporteur claims that her position is supported by “feminist organizations.”9 However, many diverse feminists, women’s rights, human rights, and LGBTIQ+ organizations and activists have voiced their disagreement with the views she is expressing. Moreover, they have attempted to raise concerns directly with her about the potential dangers of such a statement10. These attempts were made in good faith, with the purpose of providing constructive feedback so that she will, at minimum, preserve gains made by the existing mandate that has historically been invaluable to the work of feminist movements worldwide.
Based on recent statements and actions, the Special Rapporteur has indicated no intention of reconsidering her position. On the contrary, she is continuing to perpetuate narratives upholding outdated and non-scientific understandings of binary biological sex, and reinforcing unfounded and sensationalized myths that vilify and dehumanize trans women, under the guise of “protection of women’s rights.”11 In doing so, she has openly contradicted and regressed from established international human rights standards and norms on gender and sexuality, insisting on a regressive reading of international human rights law contained in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Special Rapporteurs hold a central role in the UN system as independent experts mandated to protect the rights of the marginalized and ensure implementation to remedy and prevent harm based on international human rights principles . Among the mandates of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls is to adopt a comprehensive and universal approach to the elimination of violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, including causes of violence against women relating to the civil, cultural, economic, political and social spheres.12Reem Alsalem’s publicly stated positions and actions have fundamentally compromised the mandate to address violence against women.
We unequivocally affirm the following position:
- Our work as feminists to advance the right to bodily autonomy and human rights for all cannot be isolated from the fight for legal recognition of each person’s self-defined gender identity, expression, and sexuality. As trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming persons continue to face systemic and institutionalized discrimination and violence based on their gender identity and/or expression in accessing essential services, the Special Rapporteur's call for additional obstacles to legal gender recognition13 is in itself discriminatory. Further, the connection made between the removal of barriers for legal gender recognition with increased risk of “male violence” and “retraumatization and revictimization”14 lacks empirical evidence.15 Equally importantly, it does not reflect the lived experiences of either trans people or those interacting with them, nor, in fact, the experience of victims/survivors of violence of all genders. The Special Rapporteur's crusade to defend “single sex spaces”16 is dangerous in two ways. First, it legitimizes and perpetuates anti-trans narratives that fuel the violence and discrimination targeted at trans people, which have intensified over the past years. Second, it dangerously misrepresents the causes, consequences, and impacts of gender-based violence against all people. We fear that the Special Rapporteur has provided a foundation from which to validate restrictions against the bodily autonomy of women and girls, along with other marginalized groups.
- The coordinated mobilization against rights protections of trans people cannot be understood in isolation from heightened hyper-nationalism and religious fundamentalisms, wider regressions and attacks on human rights globally. From the criminalization of abortion in Poland17 and the USA18, to the onslaught of anti-LGBTIQ+ laws being passed in Uganda19 and Russia20, racist anti-migrant laws and policies across Europe21, and the push for punitive and protectionist frameworks against sex work in UN policy spaces;22 these regressions aim to construct an exclusionary society that reinforces social hierarchies and norms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, caste, and class23. Feminist research has demonstrated extensively connections between anti-trans groups justifying discrimination under the pretext of “protecting women's rights” and religious fundamentalists groups.24
- The progress and protections afforded by international human rights law and mechanisms as we know them is a result of decades of struggle and hard work of progressive movements. Feminists, LGBTIQ+ advocates, human rights defenders, and communities negatively affected by patriarchy, racism, casteism, neoliberalism, ableism, and other forms of structural inequalities have, and continue, the struggle to dismantle these systems of oppression, and advocate for justice and liberation for all. The groundbreaking work done by all the previous UN Special Rapporteurs on Violence against Women is testament to this.25
- We recognise and affirm that our struggles for bodily autonomy are inextricably interlinked:the fulfillment of the rights of all marginalized groups, and universality and indivisibility must remain at the heart of all human rights work.
In short, none of us are free, until all of us are.
The Special Rapporteur must guarantee the mandate’s independence, accountability to rights-holders. We believe that the harmful position taken by the Special Rapporteur undermines the integrity, independence, and credibility of the Special Procedures mechanism as a whole. As feminists, we demand accountability for and a halt to the Special Rapporteur’s harmful practices. We insist that the UN system ensures voices and concerns of feminists, women’s rights, and LGBTIQ+ movements - particularly trans-led groups, are at the center rather than the margins.
We invite groups, organizations and individuals to sign on to the statement by June 19, 2023
1Particularly the Special Rapporteur’s letter addressed to the Scottish Parliament dated 23rd of November 2022. (From hereon referred to as Nov 2022 letter). Through her personal social media account and published articles, the Special Rapporteur has amplified arguments that perpetuate anti-trans narratives.
2In the Special Rapporteur’s article, Repression of women is blocking the SDGs, April 2023, she describes extensions of discrimination to encompass gender as a “regression.”
3In the CEDAW Day of General Discussion on women’s participation on 22 February 2022 the Special Rapporteur encouraged the CEDAW Committee to look at “the characteristics of sex and sex-based rights” in politics, sports and other areas. A similar statement was made by the Special Rapporteur during an EDVAW Platform briefing about “the relationship between VAW and discrimination based on sex and sex characteristics, since discrimination based on sex is outlawed in all major treaties but is becoming deprioritized.”
4UN Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/50/18 pp6, “Underscoring the fact that international human rights law prohibits discrimination, inter alia on the basis of gender, and that national legislation, policies and practices should comply with States’ international obligations,"
5Report of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz A/HRC/47/27
Para 13 "Analysis of the sources of international human rights law reveals a robust corpus iuris in which gender is the term used to describe the sociocultural constructs that assign roles, behaviours, forms of expression, activities and attributes according to the meaning given to biological sex characteristics... Under this definition, gender and sex do not substitute each other, and gender identity and gender expression are inextricably linked to them as practices of concern in anti-discrimination analysis. "
6See Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on a gender-sensitive approach to arbitrary killings, Agnès Callamard, para. 16, A/HRC/35/23, June 2017, as referenced in Comments to the Draft Crimes Against Humanity Convention in November 2018
7Nov 2022 Letter to the Scottish Parliament, pg. 6, para.27
8In the Nov 2022 Letter to the Scottish Parliament, the Special Rapporteur claims to take into consideration discrimination against women “in all their diversity” and the “risk of intersecting forms of discrimination.’ She proceeds to conclude that in removing barriers to legal gender recognition, the Scottish parliament fails to take into consider ‘women in all their diversity.’ This misrepresents the feminist concept of intersectionality. For a comprehensive view of the definition of intersectionality and its operationalization in the human rights framework, please refer to Sexual Rights Initiative’s Advancing Rights for All, May 2016
9See for instance the Special Rapporteur’s claim to the Scottish Parliament that “many of the issues that I mentioned [in my letter] echo points made by feminist organizations and victims.”
10On 30 November 2022, a coalition of feminists and LGBTIQ+ organizations submitted a private letter to the Special Rapporteur raising concerns over the Special Rapporteur's letter addressed to the Scottish Parliament. You will find the letter here.
11Nov 2022 Letter to the Scottish Parliament, pg 3 para 13 and 14. is framed to suggest that access to self identification requires safeguarding “because majority of sex offenders are male.” It also suggests that ‘women at risk of male violence’ are categorically excludes violence faced by trans women. This is a misrepresentation of the dynamics of gender-based violence. Further, referring to so-called “predators” and “violent males” when discussing the GRR reduces individual person’s identification legitimizes dangerous anti-trans narratives that fuel the targeted violence and discrimination against trans people.
12About the Mandate https://www.ohchr.org/en/about-mandate.
13Nov 2022 Letter to the Scottish Parliament, para. 8
14Nov 2022 Letter to the Scottish Parliament, para.5
15Rape Crisis Scotland statement on the open letter to Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls, November 2022
16On her social media account, on April 2023 the Special Rapporteur has claimed to “..stand in solidarity with lesbian women and girls everywhere- working tirelessly for a life free from violence; a life where they can to enjoy single sex social spaces..”
17Poland: A Year On, Abortion Ruling Harms Women, Oct 2021, Human Rights Watch
18OHCHR, USA: UN experts denounce Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, urge action to mitigate consequences, June 2022
19Full Interview: Frank Mugisha on New Anti-LGBTQ Bill in Uganda That Could Impose Death Penalty, Apr 2023, DemocracyNow
20The Guardian, Russia passes law banning ‘LGBT propaganda’ among adults Nov 2022
21OURs Trends Report Rights at Risk: time for action 2021, pg. 35
23OURs Trends Report 2021 Rights at Risk: time for action pg. 31
24OURs Trends Report 2021 Rights at Risk: time for action and OURs brief Gender ideology narratives: a threat to human rights 2022
25The previous mandate holders Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls, its Causes and Consequences have reinforced an intersectional feminist understanding in addressing violence against women (Manjoo, A/HRC/17/26, submitted communications and allegation letters to states on allegations of police abuse against trans women in Nepal ( Erturk, A/HRC/4/34/Add.1, emphasized an affirmative approach to sexual rights and women’s sexuality, away from a protectionist framework (Erturk, 15 Years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (1994-2009)—A Critical Review and emphasized a victim centered approach to trafficking and challenges criminalization of sex work (Coomaraswamy, in her interview with IWRAW Asia Pacific, Disadvantaged, ignored, and disrespected”: A feminist analysis of CEDAW General Recommendation 38 – Part 1