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Intersex and the United Nations Treaty Bodies

Many people assume the UN is far away, difficult to understand and hard to reach. At the same time, the UN is committed to hearing the voices of human rights organizations, including intersex people. This does not mean that you can just show up in Geneva, take a bus to the UN building, walk into a room, and give a passionate speech. You can take the tour meant for tourists, but being heard takes a bit more work. This article will talk about what the UN is, how intersex organizations can engage with the UN, specifically focused on the Treaty bodies, and discuss the effects of engagement.


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 UN

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:

CRC is focused on children’s rights and has included intersex in 56 recommendations.

CEDAW is focused on women’s rights, but regularly makes recommendations for all intersex people, regardless of gender, and has made 54 recommendations.

Reviews the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has made 43 recommendations.

CESCR has included intersex in 26 of their recommendations. Furthermore, it has included intersex in one of their General Comments. This clarifies that intersex people are protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

CAT focusses on torture. The treatment of intersex people does not fall under the definition of torture described in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, it does fall under other forms of “Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”. Therefore, CAT has included intersex in twenty of its recommendations.

CRPD focusses on any forms of discrimination and maltreatment that people with disabilities or impairments may face. Although intersex is not a disability, some forms of non-consensual, unnecessary medical treatment can lead to life-long disability or impairment. The Committee has included intersex in 13 recommendations. Since the recommendations to India in 2019, there is a shift towards making recommendations for all intersex people, and not only those who face intersecting forms of discrimination based on disability.

CERD has addressed intersecting forms of discrimination based on intersex and race in four of its recommendations.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Engaging with UN Treaty Bodies in 10 simple steps

  1. Check when the next session is planned where your country will be reviewed. These are regularly updated.1Check at the website of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner at the pages for the specific treaty bodies ( click on “sessions” on the right hand side for an overview. This information is regularly updated. You can als check out the overview by ILGA World
  2. Read the relevant Convention, and potentially the general comments/recommendations.
  3. Collect evidence that the human rights described in the Convention are not respected for intersex people. Evidence can consist of several things, for instance:
    1. – scientific books or articles – including medical literature,
    2. – news reports and articles,
    3. – personal statements.
  4. Write a report for the List of Issues and submit it before the deadline
    1. – arrange your evidence,
    2. – link your evidence to relevant articles of the Convention,
    3. – write suggested questions.
  5. Check the List of Issues for questions on intersex, and how your country has responded.
  6. Write a report for the Country Review and submit it before the deadline.

If you have done steps 4 & 5, update your report and write suggested recommendations.

If you have not done steps 4 & 5, do step 4 and propose recommendations.

  1. Plan your visit to the session in Geneva
    1. – register for the event (called accreditation)
    2. – apply for a visa if needed
    3. – book a flight and accommodation
  2. Write and practice a short speech, fitting within the timeframe appointed to you.
  3. Arrive on time, and deliver your speech.
  4. Go home, keep your fingers crossed and wait for recommendations, and hopefully celebrate.

Other ways of engaging with the United Nations

The Country Review process of the Treaty Bodies is one of the easiest and most accessible ways for intersex organizations to engage with the United Nations. There is also the opportunity for strategic litigation at the Treaty Bodies where individual legal cases can be presided over by the Committee, once national options have been exhausted.

Other ways are through the Human Rights Council Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

The Special Procedures, as the name won’t make you expect, are independent human rights experts of the Human Rights Council.2Not to be confused with the Human Rights Committee. They have a mandate to report on a specific country or a particular theme, with themes covering all human rights, civil, cultural, economic, political and social. These experts monitor the human rights situation in a country by undertaking country visits, collecting information from amongst others NGO’s, and conduct studies. This work serves as a base for discussions in the Human Rights Council. They can also directly communicate with governments and provide advice.

In the Universal periodic review, all 193 UN Member states have their human rights records reviewed every five years. UPR was started by the Human Rights Council and is currently in its third review cycle.3Read more on UPR Info (, and on the website for the High Commissioner for Human Rights ( The Human Rights Council consists of 47 members, who also make up the UPR Working Group. However, all UN Member States are welcome to participate in UPR. Each State then makes recommendations to the State that is reviewed. The review process is based on information provided by the State, reports of independent human rights experts, such as the special procedures, the treaty bodies, Civil Society Organizations and other UN entities. All these groups are also welcomed to attend the sessions.

Until January 2020, UPR has made 481 recommendations made on intersex. Generally, these recommendations focus on non-discrimination, often as a part of LGBTI. Recommendations regarding prohibiting non-consensual unnecessary medical interventions on intersex children are rare.4Please note that these numbers are not comparable to the number of recommendations from the Treaty bodies. The Treaty Bodies make one report with recommendations from all the committee members. In the UPR countries make individual recommendations, and it is common for a recommendation to appear several times for one country in one review session. For instance, for Albania in 2019, there were 12 recommendations on intersex, ten on protecting against discrimination, one on access to health services, and one (from Spain) to “prohibit medical intervention on intersex minors when there is no strict medical necessity”.

All UN recommendations on intersex
All UN-CAT recommendations on intersex
All UN-CEDAW recommendations on intersex
All UN-CERD recommendations on intersex
All UN-CESCR recommendations on intersex
All UN-CPRD recommendations on intersex
All UN-CRC recommendations on intersex

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