Vatican diplomat tells UN ‘gender identity’ category not necessary for refugee protection

shutterstock 369416741 United Nations Offices in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the UNHRC. | Sonia Alves-Polidori/Shutterstock

A Holy See diplomat raised concern at the United Nations in Geneva this week over the use of the term "gender identity" within the UN's refugee protection categories.

"The categories 'sexual orientations' and 'gender identity,' used in the text, find no clear and agreed definition in international law and risk the introduction of new forms of discriminatory categories within the international humanitarian community," Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees executive committee July 7.

"The inclusion of these terms is not necessary to ensure that anyone seeking protection because of persecution, for any reason, receives protection," he said.

Jurkovič serves as the Holy See's permanent observer to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He told the UN refugee committee that the Holy See delegation wished to place on record its disagreement with an assertion within the UNHCR's "Note on International Protection" which stated: "refugee law now recognizes that those facing persecution on the grounds of age, gender and sexual orientation or gender identity may be refugees."

The Holy See has repeatedly raised this concern for more than a decade regarding the use of the terms "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in UN statements, arguing that they have no "clear and agreed definition in international law."

In 2008, the Holy See delegation at the UN General Assembly stated that the UN Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity provided "rightful condemnation of and protection from all forms of violence against homosexual persons," while adding that "the document, when considered in its entirety, goes beyond this goal and instead gives rise to uncertainty in the law and challenges existing human rights norms."

Jurkovič underscored in his remarks this week that "as the traditional distinctions among categories of people on the move are increasingly blurred ... The primary and rightful concern should be to protect and promote the fundamental rights and human dignity of those who are forcibly displaced, regardless of their status."

"However, to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of interventions related to protection, assistance, and durable solutions, it is critical that the UNHCR maintains a holistic and integrated approach to its activities. This is the only way to ensure that all those who are in need of protection receive it, and to avoid the risk of stigmatizing particular individuals or populations, whether they be from majority or minority communities," he said.

The permanent observer of the Holy See also expressed concern that the coronavirus pandemic has challenged norms in refugee law, particularly "the right to seek asylum and the cardinal principle of non-refoulement."

He said this on the same day that the U.S. government proposed that asylum seekers who have spent time in a country where the coronavirus is widespread would be ineligible for asylum in the United States. The U.S. introduced other rules in June eliminating asylum for those persecuted on the basis of their gender. 

"Refugees and displaced persons are not merely the objects of assistance. They are subjects of rights and duties as all human beings," Jurkovič said.

The Vatican delegate said that secure borders and the wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers should not be considered mutually exclusive, but mutually beneficial. 

Jurkovič expressed gratitude to the UN Refugee Agency for its work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in refugee camps.

"The crisis caused by the coronavirus has shed light on the need to ensure the necessary protection to refugees too, in order to guarantee their dignity and safety," he said, quoting Pope Francis' World Refugee Day remarks.

The archbishop then renewed Pope Francis' invitation calling for "a renewed and active commitment to the protection of every human person, especially those who have been forced to flee due to situations of grave danger to them or to their families."

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