By Colum Lynch
For three years, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has toiled in obscurity to secure the approval of an obscure U.N. committee that decides who gets to participate in public U.N. meetings and debates.
Over the week 10-16 July, the group's struggle to gain "consultative status" at the United Nations - basically a grounds pass and access to open U.N. meetings - attracted rare attention from Capitol Hill and the White House. It also became a stark symbol of the shrinking influence of American social conservatives at the United Nations.
On Monday 19 July, the U.N. Economic and Social Council approved the group's application, essentially overruling a smaller NGO committee that had prevented action on the gay rights group's application for more than 3 years, making it the first American gay and lesbian group to lobby at the United Nations. The vote -- which rights activists feared would be close -- turned out to be a landslide: 23 to 13, with eight abstentions and five government no-shows.
"I welcome this important step forward for human rights, as the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission (ILGHRC) will take its rightful seat at the table of the United Nations," U.S. President Barack Obama said after the vote. "The United Nations is closer to the ideals on which it was founded, and to values of inclusion and equality to which the United States is deeply committed."
Earlier this month, Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and Trent Franks (R-AZ) rallied behind a campaign headed by Islamic countries, principally Egypt, to block a move to allow the New York-based group to secure accreditation. In a letter to U.N. members, Smith and Franks wrote that "the preservation of the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion require" the gay rights organizations to undergo further questioning of its views.
In previous years, American conservatives like Smith, backed by the White House and the Vatican, exercised enormous influence on social matters at the United Nations. But the letter from Smith and Franks appeared to have backfired, awakening congressional leadership that has grown decidedly more liberal during the past two years.
Within a week, 15 Congressional House members, including powerful committee members like Barney Frank (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), sent their own letters urging U.N. members to support the gay rights groups. Sens. Kristen E. Gilbrand (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) added their voices to the cause. And Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged U.N. members to end the delays.
"It is a tactic that should not be allowed to stand," Kerry wrote in a July 16 letter to U.N. members. "It would be very difficult if this procedural mechanism or other unjustifiable opposition were to be used to prevent an NGO that's highly regarded by the US Department of States and the human rights community from being fully considered for consultative status."
Behind the scenes, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice and her team quietly informed key governments, including African states, of the importance Obama and his administration placed on this issue. Jessica Stern, a policy advisor for IGLHRC, said the diplomacy was critical in persuading African states that might have voted against the measure to abstain or to not show up.
"There is no question that having high-level U.S. government officials make calls on our behalf made a difference, particularly on the high number of abstentions," Stern said, noting that the Bush administration had supported her group's bid for consultative status but never invested the same level of political capital on it. "There was always going to be controversy around our application. But the support of the U.S. government was incredibly significant to the victory we enjoyed yesterday."
Stern and other gay rights activists maintain that U.S. support for gays at the United Nations comes at a time when the Obama administration is facing criticism on the domestic front for not pressing hard enough for gay rights at home.
Stern said that while the outcome may underscore the waning influence of the conservative international religious alliance at the United Nations, it also underscored that those groups could work together to mount a vigorous campaign.
In criticizing the current U.S. position, Smith and Franks drew upon arguments put forward by Egypt and other governments. They cited the Yogyakarta Principles, which the IGLHRC has endorsed and appeals to states to "ensure that the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression does not violate the rights and freedoms of persons of diverse sexual orientation and gender identities."
In June, when IGLHRC's application came before the U.N. NGO Committee, Egypt expressed concern that the principles might be used to subject religious leaders, who condemn homosexual behavior, to persecution. Smith and Franks said they "have serious questions regarding the IGLHRC's support for the internationally recognized rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression."
Here's how the vote played out:
Votes For - 23
- Rep. of Korea
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Russian Fed.
- Saudi Arabia
- Cote D'Ivoire
- Rep. of Moldova
- Saint Kitts & Nevis
- Saint Lucia