In July 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued Resolution 29/22 on the protection of the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society. The Human Rights Council requested that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) prepare a report on the protection of the family and present it at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council. Such a report is a relevant step forward for lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) parent-families’ rights within the United Nations aegis.

Resolution 29/22 focused on issues related to single-headed households, protection of children, disparity of household responsibilities between men and women and the protection of disabled members of families. To prepare the report, a note verbale was sent; 24 states and 81 civil society organisations responded with their input to the OHCHR. In particular, Denmark pointed out that Resolution 29/22 does not ‘properly recognize [sic] the fact that various forms of families exist’. Furthermore, the United Kingdom, the United States, and organisations such as Sexual Rights Initiative, and OutRight Action International, asked the OHCHR to consider LGBT parent-families.

Indeed, in the report submitted by the OHCHR to the Human Rights Council pursuant to item 37 of Resolution 29/22 (OHCHR report), the OHCHR states that there is no definition of ‘family’ in international law, and that there is a general consensus within UN documents that the concept of ‘family’ must be understood in a ‘wide sense’. While states maintain a margin of appreciation in defining the concept of family (para 26), the report encourages states to ensure that children born in de facto unions and in LGBT parent-families have equal rights of those born from married and heterosexual couples (para 42).

However, the OHCHR report also reiterates that men and women of full age have the right to marry (para 28. See also article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 23(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)), and this right can only be understood to mean that a man can marry a woman and vice versa. Indeed, in 2002, the UN Human Rights Committee clarified in Joslin et al v New Zealand that the expression ‘men and women’ denotes that only different sex couples have the right to marry, because the drafters of the ICCPR considered marriage to mean an exclusively heterosexual institution (Luca Paladini, ‘Same-Sex Couples before Quasi-Jurisdictional Bodies: The Case of the UN Human Rights Committee’ in Daniele Gallo, Pietro Pustorino, Luca Paladini (eds) Same-Sex Couples before National, Supranational and International Jurisdictions (Springer, Heidelberg, 2014) 533 at 545). Nevertheless, the OHCHR report also stresses that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has called upon states to provide some sort of legal recognition — for example civil partnership acts or legal recognition of de facto couples — for same-sex couples (OHCHR report, para 27).

The prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is a politically controversial issue and a developing concept in international human rights law (Frederick Cowell and Angelina Milon, ‘Decriminalisation of Sexual Orientation through the Universal Periodic Review’ (2012) 12 Human Rights Law Review 341 at 344; Ronald Holzhacjer, ‘State-Sponsored Homophobia and the Denial of the Right of Assembly in Central and Eastern Europe: The “Boomerang” and the “Ricochet” between European Organizations and Civil Society to Uphold Human Rights’ (2013) 35 Law & Policy 1 at 8). In general, issues related to LGBT rights — particularly those related to LGBT family rights — trigger strong reactions from conservative/religious states and organisations. Indeed, conservative voices did not delay in expressing their disappointment with the OHCHR report. In February 2016, Global Helping to Advance Women and Children, the UN Family Rights Caucus and 26 organisations with consultative status at the UN Economic and Social Council submitted a written statement to the UN Secretary General (A/HRC/31/NGO/155) which maintained that the OHCHR report seeks to advance the status of LGBT relationships contrary to international law. The written statement continued to say that the claim that there is a general consensus within the UN on the term ‘various forms of families’ is ‘false and disingenuous’; and concluded by calling upon the OHCHR to edit the report by removing reference to the recognition of different forms of families.

In conclusion, the mention in the OHCHR report to different types of families, and the prohibition of discrimination against children born in LGBT parents-families, are much-needed steps forward in the advancement of LGBT family rights. However, at this point, it is crucial to see whether a second resolution on the protection of the family can evolve in a direction that reflects the sentiments expressed in the OHCHR report.

Giulia Dondoli is a PhD Candidate at Te Piringa — Faculty of Law of the University of Waikato.