Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

66 countries – but not U.S. – sign UN gay statement


LGBT activists at the UN General Assembly's historic session, December 18. Back row, from left: Charlotte Bunch, Center for Women's Global Leadership; Kate Sheill, Amnesty International; Jelena Postic, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission international adviser; Susana Fried, UNDP; Kim Vance and John Fisher, ARC International; Philippe Colomb, Inter-LGBT France; Renato Sabbadini, International LGBTI Association; and Reverend Jide Macaulay, Metropolitan Community Churches Nigeria. Second row, from left: Ariel Herrera, AI; Cynthia Rothschild, CWGL; Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC; Vanessa Jackson, International Service for Human Rights; Bruce Knotts, Unitarian Universalist; Joyce Hamilton, COC Netherlands; and Todd Larson, IGLHRC. Photo: Adrian Coman, IGLHRC.
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While 66 countries signed a statement on sexual orientation and gender identity presented before the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday, December 18, the United States – alone among industrialized Western nations – was not among them.

"It's an appalling stance – to not join with other countries that are standing up and calling for decriminalization of homosexuality," said International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission Executive Director Paula Ettelbrick.

The statement, which carries less weight than an official resolution, is the first instance in which the full General Assembly has formally addressed violation of human rights on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"We condemn human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity wherever they occur, in particular the use of the death penalty on this ground, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the practice of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary arrest or detention and deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health," the statement reads in part.

The statement in effect calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality and gender nonconformity, though it does not use these words. "We urge states to take all the necessary measures, in particular legislative or administrative, to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests, or detention," the statement continued.

"The UN statement goes much further than seeking the decriminalization of same-sex acts," said longtime United Kingdom activist Peter Tatchell. "It condemns all human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, urges countries to protect the human rights of LGBT people and to bring to justice those who violate these rights."

The statement was sponsored by France and the Netherlands and presented before the General Assembly by Jorge Argello from Argentina. The group that coordinated drafting of the statement also included Brazil, Croatia, Gabon, Japan, and Norway.

The 66 signatories included all 27 European Union member states, Canada, Mexico, Australia, most Eastern European and South American countries, Israel (alone in the Middle East), six African countries, and Nepal (in a departure from the Maoist government's previous condemnation of homosexuality).

Out of the 192 UN member states, about a third rejected the statement, while the remaining third expressed no opinion. In addition to the U.S., opposing members included the Vatican (which has UN observer status), the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Russia, and most countries in Africa and Asia.

U.S. diplomatic officials claimed the statement potentially impinged on the separation between state and federal law.

"We are opposed to any discrimination, legally or politically, but the nature of our federal system prevents us from undertaking commitments and engagements where federal authorities don't have jurisdiction," said UN representative Alejandro Wolff.

Landlords and employers in several states in the U.S. may still legally discriminate against LGBT people, although the Supreme Court in its 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision ruled that state laws banning gay sex were unconstitutional.

"It is altogether shameful that on this 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Bush administration should take one final swipe at the universal application of human rights for all," noted Julie Dorf of the recently formed Council for Global Equality.

The council, which also includes former Ambassador Michael Guest and Mark Bromley, expressed hope for change under the incoming Obama administration, noting that President-elect Barack Obama stated during his campaign, "I think it is not acceptable that we would in any way carve out exceptions for our broader human rights advocacy to exclude violations of human rights based on sexual orientation."

One surprise from Vatican

Vatican officials denounced the statement earlier this month, claiming it was a disguised attempt to pressure countries to approve same-sex marriage, spurring protests by LGBT advocates. In a surprise move, the Holy See indicated that it supported repeal of criminal penalties for homosexual conduct, though it did not sign the statement.

Another unexpected turn came from South Africa, which declined to sign on to the statement even though its post-apartheid constitution guarantees equal rights for LGBT people.

A group of 57 opponents led by the Islamic alliance crafted its own counterstatement, presented by Syria's Abdullah al-Hallaq, asserting that laws concerning homosexuality and gender nonconformity should be left to individual countries, and that decriminalization could lead to "the social normalization and possibly the legalization of deplorable acts" such as pedophilia. The U.S. did not sign the counterstatement.

Opponents failed, however, to have the words "sexual orientation" removed from a separate resolution condemning summary execution for various causes.

Homosexuality remains a criminal offense in some 80 countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA), including several – such as U.S. ally Saudi Arabia – that impose the death penalty for sex between men. Transgender people, too, are still persecuted in many parts of the world.

The statement emphasized, however, that "violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization, and prejudice are directed against persons in all countries in the world because of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that these practices undermine the integrity and dignity of those subjected to these abuses."

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