Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were once again subject to the whims of homophobia and religious and cultural extremism this week, thanks to a United Nations vote that removed “sexual orientation” from a resolution that protects people from arbitrary executions. In other words, the UN General Assembly this week voted to allow LGBT people to be executed without cause.
According to the International Gay and Lesbians Human Rights Commission, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee on Social, Cultural and Humanitarian issues removed “sexual orientation” from a resolution addressing extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions this past week in a vote that was overwhelming represented by a majority of African, Middle East and Carribean nations. For a UN committee that addresses human rights questions that affect people all over the world, by removing protections for LGBT persons from a category of arbitrary executions, belies the objective and purpose of a committee whose focus this year is “on the examination of human rights questions,” according to its website.
A number of LGBT human rights advocates were surprised by the decidedly lop-sided vote, including Mark Bromley, the chair of the Council on Global Equality, a Washington, D.C. based organization that brings together human rights organizations, LGBT groups, philanthropists and corporate leaders to ”encourage a clearer and stronger American voice on human rights concerns impacting LGBT communities around the world.”
“I was very surprised by the vote,” said Bromley, who had been in contact with the United States Mission to the United Nations delegation all day Tuesday, who were trying to beat back efforts to strip sexual orientation from the resolution. But because the U.S. supports capital punishment, they usually abstain from voting on this resolution, thus they are in a weakened position with one arm tied behind their backs, according to Bromley. “But that said, the State Department did everything possible to beat back the efforts to repeal protections for LGBT persons,” he added.
For further analysis into this story, read Tanya Domi’s latest piece at The New Civil Rights Movement, “UN Vote Allowing Gays To Be Executed Result Of Political, Religious Fundamentalism.”
The U.K. gay rights and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said,
“This is a shameful day in United Nations history. It gives a de facto green light to the on-going murder of LGBT people by homophobic regimes, death squads and vigilantes. They will take comfort from the fact that the UN does not endorse the protection of LGBT people against hate-motivated murder.
“The UN vote is in direct defiance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees equal treatment, non-discrimination and the right to life. What is the point of the UN if it refuses to uphold its own humanitarian values and declarations?
“This vote is partly the result of a disturbing homophobic alliance between mostly African and Arab states, often inspired by religious fundamentalism. LGBT people in these countries frequently suffer severe persecution.”
In an issued statement explaining the U.S. vote, a representative of the U.S. UN delegation said,
At the outset, let me say that the United States strongly agrees with and appreciates the cosponsors’ efforts to retain language specifically condemning ESAs [extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions] targeting vulnerable groups, particularly members of the LGBT community, and we were dismayed that this reference could not survive an unfriendly amendment.
Bromley expressed great disappointment in losing all the Southern African countries on the vote, including Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Nambia and South Africa, the latter, whose domestic laws and record on LGBT civil rights have held great regard throughout the world. Nonetheless, according to Bromley, from the days of former President Thabo Mbeki through present day leader Jacob Zuma, South Africa has been recalcitrant in its opposition to extending human rights to LGBT persons within international legal structures.
Another region that unanimously supported the removal of sexual orientation from the resolution were the Carribean nations. Most noteworthy was the support from the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. Bromley indicated that the U.S. and human rights groups in the hemisphere have opportunities to forcefully advance LGBT rights through the Organization of American States (OAS) and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Brazil and Uruguay are international leaders on LGBT rights and can play a constructive role in bringing Carribean nations into the OAS fold on these issues, according to Bromley.
Middle East countries that principally observe the Muslim religion and its practices, as well as countries whose politics are dominated by Christian fundamentalists, generally oppose LGBT and women’s rights at the UN. Even the United States has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Indeed, CEDAW has the most “reservations” filed by the most member states of any international human rights convention on record. A reservation is a statement made by a State which it purports to exclude or alter the legal effect of certain provisions of a treaty in their application. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights,
A reservation may enable a State to participate in a multilateral treaty in which it would otherwise be unable or unwilling to do so. States can make reservations to a treaty when they sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to it. When a State makes a reservation upon signing, it must confirm the reservation upon ratification, acceptance or approval…a reservation cannot be contrary to the object and purpose of the treaty.
As an LGBT activist or an observer of UN and international politics, it is important for interested persons to understand that religion and culture play a major role in persuading internal bodies to not extend certain human rights to LGBT persons and women on religious and cultural grounds. These dynamics have created an international debate between advocates of “cultural relativism“–those who assert primacy of cultural values over human rights and those who are “universalists,” who believe rights trump cultural concerns.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Andrés Duque for bringing this to our attention.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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