President Jimmy Carter is commonly listed as a failed chief executive, but his administration created a lasting legacy by making support for human rights a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. In the three decades since Carter left the White House, no administration Republican or Democratic has felt free to disregard human rights issues in making major foreign policy decisions or in shaping U.S. relations with individual countries.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have now laid the basis for a similar legacy by making support for LGBT rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. In a coordinated intercontinental media hit earlier this month [Dec. 6], Clinton delivered a powerful speech in support of LGBT rights worldwide to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, at the same time that Obama was issuing a presidential memorandum directing concrete steps for federal agencies to take to promote LGBT rights abroad.
Clinton’s espousal of LGBT rights came as the U.N. body was celebrating the sixty-third anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She acknowledged that LGBT rights were on nobody’s radar screen at the time, but noted that over time the international charter has been expanded to encompass the rights of indigenous peoples, children, and people with disabilities. In like fashion, Clinton said, the charter’s guarantees extend to LGBT persons as well. “Gay rights are human rights,” she declared, “and human rights are gay rights.”
Clinton continued by cataloguing the many violations of those rights around the world. LGBT persons, she said, “are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.”
State Department aides were reportedly concerned enough about possible adverse reaction to the speech that they did not advertise its subject in advance, according to the New York Times account. Among the 47 countries represented in the U.N. Council are such LGBT rights violators as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal and sometimes prosecuted, and Uganda, where a controversial bill calls for executing “repeat offenders.” Despite the aides’ concerns, the Times reported that no one walked out of the speech and Clinton received a standing ovation.
Clinton took pains to anticipate and refute the potential arguments against recognizing LGBT rights. Homosexuality is not an exclusively Western phenomenon, she said, as some in Africa and the Middle East contend. “Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world,” Clinton said. Nor is gay rights a “luxury” that only the West can afford. In fact, Clinton said, failing to protect LGBT rights imposes costs, including lives of gay and straight people alike lost to disease and violence.
Most broadly, Clinton said that neither religion nor culture can justify denying LGBT persons the universal rights to equality and dignity. “No practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us,” Clinton said. “And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.”
As Clinton and the White House both emphasized, the United States was already on record in support of LGBT rights at the U.N. council. The U.S. provided critical support in June to a South African-sponsored resolution expressing concern about the violence and discrimination that people suffer because of their sexual orientation. The resolution, approved by a 23-19 vote, marked the U.N.’s first official recognition of LGBT rights. It asked for the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights to complete a study on by December on the extent of discriminatory laws and practices worldwide.
The mammoth report, released Dec. 15, confirmed the incidence of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination around the world. Violence against LGBT persons “tends to be especially vicious compared to other bias-motivated crimes,” the report noted.
Around the world, same-sex conduct remains illegal in 76 countries, according to the report, including five that provide the death penalty for homosexual activity. On the other hand, the report noted encouragingly that 30 countries have decriminalized same-sex conduct in recent years. That list includes the United States, where the Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003.
In Washington, the White House said the State Department and other agencies were being directed to combat the criminalization of LGBT status or conduct and to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. The White House also called for leveraging U.S. foreign aid to support LGBT rights. As a small step toward that end, the State Department committed $3 million to a planned public-private fund to support LGBT rights organizations abroad.
The U.S. initiatives cannot guarantee LGBT rights progress overnight. But documenting LGBT rights violations in U.S. and U.N. reporting over time will keep these issues on the international agenda. And despite the continuing political divisions in the United States, future administrations Republican or Democratic may find that the Obama administration has set a course on LGBT rights that cannot be reversed or ignored.