In 2011 intersex organizations from Germany successfully pleaded for intersex human rights at the United Nations (UN) for the first time. Up until March 2020, seven treaty bodies have made 216 recommendations on intersex to countries all over the world. Resulting from these recommendations, governments are discussing intersex issues, and some policy changes have been made.
Human rights are fundamental rights that all people should have, simply because they are human. That does not mean that these rights are always respected. It is often talked about that in the case of intersex people the right to bodily integrity, the right to autonomy and the right to self-determination is violated. These violations occur when non-consensual unnecessary medical interventions are performed. However, more rights are regularly violated, for instance, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to education and the right to life.
These rights are often included in national legislation, but especially in international law. The best known organization that creates international law is the United Nations (UN). To ensure that countries follow international legislation, the UN also checks whether countries adhere to the international laws that they have said they will. This makes engaging with international organizations like the UN important for intersex organizations.
The United Nations was formed in 1945 after World War II focused on international cooperation between governments. The UN is the most well-known, powerful and influential intergovernmental organization that exists. Its main goals are peacekeeping and security, economic development and humanitarian assistance and the promotion of human rights.
The primary human rights document the UN is known for is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a treaty and therefore not legally binding. Still, its principles have formed the basis of several international treaties or conventions. These conventions have been signed and ratified by most countries. These conventions are binding. By signing and ratifying a UN Treaty, states are held to these standards and their adherence is reviewed every few years.
The Treaty Bodies
The committees that review whether countries follow the treaties that they have signed and ratified are called the Treaty Bodies. The Committee meets with the country representatives to discuss the current situation in a constructive dialogue. There are ten Treaty Bodies, each with a specific focus. Seven of these committees have made recommendations about intersex. In some cases, intersex has been included as part of LGBTI, or with other groups of minorities, in other cases, specific recommendations have been made.
For example, intersex was included in the recommendations made to Austria in 2015 by the Committee Against Torture in 2015. And in 2019 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Several actions have been advised, for instance: a prohibition on non-consensual, unnecessary medical interventions on intersex children, but also guaranteeing impartial counseling services, guaranteeing that consent is ensured, and investigating cases of non-consensual, unnecessary medical interventions and compensating the victims.
Recommendations are advice given to a country to take action against human rights violations. These recommendations from the United Nations carry weight internationally. States don’t always immediately follow the recommendations. However, these Committees build international pressure to effect changes in the long term. When engaging with the UN on intersex issues, there are no guarantees that a Committee will make recommendations about intersex. If the process is not successful for one Committee, however, it is always possible to file a report again for the next session or to file a report to another committee.
The seven committees that have made recommendations on intersex are:
Committee members are independent experts that may serve on a Committee for several years, generally for four years, after which they may be re-elected. Reporting helps to inform new committee members and keep intersex issues on the agenda. Therefore, it is important to continue engaging with the Treaty Bodies.
Engaging with the UN Treaty Bodies
The Committees hold sessions the member check whether a country adheres to the Convention they oversee, this process is known as a Country Review. At every country review, the Committees gather information. The State, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI’s), and Civil Society Organisations/NGO’s provide information through reports and later in person during a meeting where they hold a constructive dialogue. Intersex organizations are Civil Society Organisations and can engage in this process.
There are three specific points in the country review process where intersex organizations can engage with a United Nations Treaty Body. This is done by providing information about the situation of intersex people in the country, supported by evidence.
- Several months, sometimes years, before the meeting, the UN requests a country to send a report describing the current human rights situation. Additionally, the committee members ask questions about topics that they want to see addressed. At this point, there is also a request for alternative reports from Civil Society Organisations with information on what they see happening in the country, with suggestions for questions to ask. The Committee will then write the questions they want down in the List of Issues and send these to the country. The government of the country will have to answer these questions in a report.
- One to two months before the meeting, Civil Society Organisations are again requested by the UN committee to provide information and suggest recommendations to improve the human rights situation in their country.
- Before the discussion between the UN and the country, there is a session where NGO’s can present their report by giving a brief speech.
Engaging with the UN takes consistent effort. It is possible not to write a report for the List of Issues, but to write a report for the Country Review. However, it is not possible to not write a report and still address the Committee.
All of this can seem daunting. There is specific terminology that may be unfamiliar. You need to gather evidence to support your report. Reviews are once every few years, so you are dependent on when a Committee – from a Treaty that is relevant for intersex organizations -reviews your country. You need to stick to deadlines. And you need the resources to write a report and preferably attend a session. Several organizations provide support – for instance: NNID. Naturally, collaborating with a group of people within your organization helps too.