HRC51: The right to health of intersex persons and protection from violence and harmful practices

Human Rights Council 51: The right to health of intersex persons and protection from violence and harmful practices based on sex characteristics

The event focused on the right to health of intersex persons and protection from violence and harmful practices – including on medical settings – based on sex characteristics. It brought together UN special procedures, health experts, civil society representatives and member states to share the main challenges and best practices on the topic. The event provided an opportunity to explore the experiences of intersex individuals.

Event organised by: Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva of Finland, in cooperation with ILGA World.

Co-organised by: Permanent Missions to the United Nations in Geneva of Argentina, Australia, Austria, Iceland, Mexico, The Netherlands; GATE; Intersex Asia, IHRA – Intersex Human Rights Australia, OII Europe and Iranti.


Opening remarks: Kirsti Kauppi (Ambassador, Permanent Representant of Finland in Geneva)
Keynote speech: Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health)

Panel discussion moderated by Crystal Hendricks (Iranti, Chair of ILGA World Intersex Committee) with panelists:

Morgan Carpenter (bioethicist and human rights advocate, Executive Director of Intersex Human Rights Australia) 
Michael van Gelderen (Human Rights Expert, OHCHR)
Tikli Oikarinen (Finnish intersex expert, author of a study on intersex commissioned
by the Finnish Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Representative from Mexico (TBC)

Date and time: Thursday 29 September, 13:15 – 14:45 CEST (9.15pm – 10.45pm AEST)
Format: in person; the event will be livestreamed on YouTube

event flyer


Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit medical norms or expectations for female or male bodies. There are multiple and diverse manifestations within the intersex umbrella and more than 40 relevant genetic traits known. Intersex traits are innate, so they can be identified at any age, at birth or in early childhood, during puberty or when trying to conceive a child.

Intersex persons risk many human rights violations or abuses due to their physical traits. These include forced and coercive medical interventions, harmful practices and other forms of stigmatisation.

At the 45th Human Rights Council session a cross-regional group of 37 states delivered a joint statement calling on states to protect the human rights of intersex persons. Following up on this a similar joint statement was delivered at the 48th HRC session on behalf of 53 states.
The statement affirms that there is “a need to take measures to protect the autonomy of intersex children and adults and their rights to health and to physical and mental integrity so that they live free from violence and harmful practices. Medically unnecessary surgeries, hormonal treatments and other invasive or irreversible non-vital medical procedures without their free, prior, full and informed consent are harmful to the full enjoyment of the human rights of intersex persons.”

Indeed, in most countries around the world, intersex infants, children and adolescents are subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries, hormonal treatment and other procedures, in an attempt to forcibly modify their appearance or physical development to be in line with societal expectations of female and male bodies without their prior, personal and informed consent, especially during infancy or adolescence.

Several human rights mechanisms have expressed concern on the impacts of these practices – and framed them as human rights violations and abuses: these include UN mechanisms and agencies, but also regional mechanisms – including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa, the Council of Europe and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

According to the medical organization Physicians for Human Rights, “there is no meaningful evidence of either physical or mental health benefits to intersex children deriving from early surgery, except in those limited cases where such surgeries are medically necessary”. On the contrary, the organisation states that “evidence [shows] that the surgery itself can cause severe and irreversible physical harm and emotional distress.”

While the two joint statements issued by a cross-regional group and the African Group statement on intersex played an important role in raising awareness about the general situation of human rights of intersex persons, it is important to take a closer look at some of these human rights violations and how to address them.