BANGKOK — Members of Thailand’s LGBT community said Thursday the resignation of Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nation’s first watchdog on gender, could slow gains being made globally.
Word spread Wednesday that the Thai law professor had tendered his resignation less than a year after he became the UN’s first independent expert empowered to investigate discrimination and abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity. His appointment was met with open hostility by some delegations.
“Circumstances on continents such as Asia, Latin America and Africa need an independent expert, and Ajarn Vitit, who is qualified in the legal profession, has the ability to connect the contexts of law and universal human rights,” said Kath Khangpiboon of the Thai Transgender Alliance, likening his departure to the loss of a major community figure.
The 64-year-old Chulalongkorn University law professor cited health problems in his Sept. 8 resignation letter sent to the world body’s Human Rights Council. His resignation will be effective Oct. 31.
Reached for comment, Vitit stressed that illness was the biggest factor in his decision. He did not elaborate.
“I’ve been ill for two months, and I want to reduce the load,” Vitit said Thursday afternoon, adding that he would travel to New York in October to present his final report.
Vitit was named to the newly created post in September 2016. He immediately faced fierce opposition led by delegations from Africa which launched a motion to suspend the position and Vitit’s mandate. It narrowly failed.
An LGBT rights political scientist said the loss of Vitit at the international level may not matter on the local level.
“It may not affect that much,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchatani University, said Thursday. He said internal local forces fuel advances for LGBT communities more than UN oversight.
“Without Vitit’s role, it could slow down the process, but you can’t just focus on one organization,” Titipol said. “The most important things are domestic forces: LGBT individuals and communities, who are already working hard to fight for their rights.”
Supporters expressed their regret online.
“Having met him, I am sure he is gutted to have to give up this important position. I wish him well and hope the position is filled quickly,” Trinidad-born gay rights advocate Jason Jones wrote online Wednesday with a photo of him with Vitit.
During his time on the job, Vitit visited many countries to meet with government players, activists and organizations. He submitted two reports to the UN’s Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly.
“I regret that I am now tendering my resignation,” Vitit wrote in his letter to the president of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. “I have been unwell for the past few months and have also been hospitalized … In addition, there is a family reason; a key member of my family/household is ill and I am now having to undertake additional family obligations which consume both time and energy.”
Vitit graduated from Oxford University and the Free University of Brussels and served as a barrister at the Middle Temple in London. Prior to being appointed independent expert, he served as UN special rapporteur on Syrian matters and human rights in North Korea.
Midnight Poonkasetwattana, executive director of the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health said Vitit worked hard in his role.
“He has done huge amounts of hard work,” Midnight said. “He has traveled to many cities several times, including Buenos Aires and Geneva. He has worked as a volunteer, and he did it alone.”
It was not immediately known when the process for appointing Vitit’s successor would begin. Midnight said he expects they would be drawn from the “global south” of less developed nations to bring insight into the LGBT issues, such as violence and discrimination, on the ground level.