A culture war has broken out at the United Nations over whether gays should be singled out for the same protections as other minorities whose lives are threatened.
The battle will come to a head Dec. 21 when the General Assembly votes to renew its routine condemnation of the unjustified killing of various categories of vulnerable people.
It specifies killings for racial, national, ethnic, religious or linguistic reasons and includes refugees, indigenous people and other groups. But the resolution, because of a change promoted by Arab and African nations and approved at committee level, this time around drops “sexual orientation” and replaces it with “discriminatory reasons on any basis.”
The U.S. government says it is “incensed” at the change, as are gay rights campaigners.
“Even if those countries do not support gay rights, you would think they would support our right not to be killed,” said Jessica Stern of the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Stern said gay people all over the world are frequent targets of violence because of their sexual orientation.
Authorities in Jamaica are investigating a possible hate crime in the slaying earlier this month of a man who belonged to the sole gay rights group in the conservative, largely Christian nation. Uganda, among 76 countries that criminalize homosexuality, is debating whether to join the five other countries in the world that consider it a capital crime.
The General Assembly is set for a final vote Dec. 21 on its biennial resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings – without the reference to sexual orientation for the first time since 1999. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice has said she was “incensed” the reference was removed and the United States will move to restore it.
The battle over those two words underscores the historic split over gay rights among U.N. members and their diverse religious and cultural sensibilities. Activists say gay and lesbian issues got only minimal attention at the U.N. a decade ago.
“There has been slow, but steady progress on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights at the U.N.,” Stern said.
Stern cited as progress Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “landmark” speech during a gay rights forum at U.N. headquarters on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, calling for an end to laws around the world that make it a crime to be homosexual.
But as gay rights gain more acceptance in the U.N. system, some member states are pushing back, said Mark Bromley, of the Washington-based Council for Global Equality, which aims to advance gay rights in American foreign policy. “I think some states are uncomfortable and they are organizing to limit engagement on the issue.”
“We are seeing a backlash,” agreed Stern. “This is an illustration of the tensions around culture at the United Nations, and how power plays out and alliances are made.”
Benin, on behalf of African countries, introduced the amendment deleting the specific reference to sexual orientation at a Nov. 16 General Assembly committee meeting. Benin’s mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request sent via e-mail for more information about why the amendment was introduced.
Benin, a largely Christian country of 8 million with a sizable Muslim population, argued that “sexual orientation had no legal foundation in any international human rights instruments.” Morocco, an Arab country in north Africa that is almost exclusively Muslim, asserted that such selectivity “accommodated particular interests and groups over others” and urged all U.N. member states “to devote special attention to the protection of the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society.”
Western nations opposed the move to delete the mention of sexual orientation.
Britain called it “an affront to human dignity,” and France and Norway said the move was “regrettable.” Sweden said the change amounted to “looking the other way” when people are killed for being gay.
The amendment narrowly passed 79-70, with 17 abstentions. The so-called Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues and includes all 192 U.N. member states, then approved the entire resolution on all unjustified killings for discriminatory reasons 165-0, with 10 abstentions.
General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, but rather reflect the views of the majority of the world’s nations.
Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said the United States will introduce an amendment next week to restore the previous language including the phrase “sexual orientation” because “this is an issue that is important to us.”
“We’ve also been doing a great deal of lobbying” to get the restoration of the phrase approved, Kornblau said.
Gay rights and human rights activists also have been lobbying missions to the U.N. in New York in recent days, urging especially those delegations that abstained on the amendment to help restore the mention of sexual orientation.
“We only need a few more countries and we can change this vote around,” said Boris O. Dittrich, who directs the program on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights for the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
But gaining the world’s support for gay rights will take far longer.
More than two-thirds of U.N. members, many of them Muslim nations, are refusing to sign a separate United Nations statement condemning human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, especially with regard to the application of the death penalty and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Under the Bush administration in 2008, even the United States refused to join all other Western nations in signing that declaration, arguing that the broad framing of the language in the statement might conflict with U.S. laws.
After President Barack Obama took office, the United States last year joined other member states to support the declaration, saying it found that the language did not conflict with American laws. Sixty-eight of the U.N.’s members have now signed the declaration. That leaves 124 countries that have not.