United Nations Human Rights Council adopts Resolution to support Caster Semenya titled “Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Girls in Sport”

United Nations Human Rights Council adopts Resolution to support Caster Semenya titled “Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Girls in Sport”

Today, 21 March 2019 the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in its 40th Session in Geneva adopted a resolution by consensus and without a vote on eliminating discrimination against women and girls in sport, giving significant global weight from a human rights perspective to Caster Semenya’s case. South Africa presented the resolution and is grateful to all members of the Council and to civil society for rallying behind the resolution, which was co-sponsored by India, Eswatini, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Burundi, Iceland and Canada.


In her introductory remarks, Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko stated that African women and girls cannot wait for others to permit them to enjoy their human rights. In many areas they stand at the back of the queue and fight against stereotyping and patriarchal, racist and sexist systems and institutions that deny them their human dignity and trample on their rights. The ambassador pointed out that in South Africa we have a saying: “wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo”, which means “you strike a woman, you strike and dislodge a boulder and it will crush you”. The ambassador called on the Human Rights Council to strike a blow for African women and girl athletes, and women and girl athletes in all developing countries, and to dislodge racism by adopting the resolution by consensus.


The resolution recalls the 2030 Agenda, also known as the Sustainable Development Goals, and their imperative to leave no-one behind and not discriminate based on race and gender. It recognises that racial discrimination does not affect women and men equally or in the same way, and that some forms of racial discrimination have a unique and specific impact on women which requires explicit recognition and acknowledgement of the different life experiences of women. The text notes the Interim Arbitral Award issued on 24 July 2015 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, according to which many variables are legitimately associated with performance in sports, including a range of physical and biological traits, as well as social and economic factors.


It goes on to express concern that regulations, rules and practices that require women and girl athletes with differences of sex development, androgen sensitivity and levels of testosterone to medically reduce their blood testosterone levels may contravene international human rights norms and standards, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to sexual and reproductive health, the right to work and to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work, the right to privacy, the right to freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and full respect for the dignity, bodily integrity and bodily autonomy of women and girls.


Importantly, the resolution requests the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on the intersection of race and gender discrimination in sports, including in policies, regulations and practices of sporting bodies, and elaborating on relevant international human rights norms and standards. The report will be presented to the Human Rights Council at its session in June 2020. The resolution also ensures that the Council will continue its consideration of this matter in its future Programme of Work. It follows on a submission by two United Nations Special Rapporteurs and a Working Group to the International Association of Athletics Federations expressing concern on this matter.


This is the first time that the human rights system holds international sport associations to account for their obligations under international human rights law. South Africa is pleased that the Human Rights Council struck a blow for Caster Semenya and athletes like her, and did so on Human Rights Day 2019.


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