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Saturday, 17 December 2011

What preceded Hillary Clinton's UN speech?

By Douglas Sanders

Hillary Clinton’s fine speech in Geneva on LGBT rights saw the US playing catch-up to initiatives of a dozen other Western countries. As activists, we welcome the US to the process. But dawn is not yet breaking everywhere.  There are many time zones.

In the years since the Second World War lesbians and gay men have gradually been recognized as legitimate minorities in the West. Soon half of Western Europe will have legal same-sex marriage (and most of the rest will have registered partnerships in parallel with heterosexual marriage). Latin America has begun to follow the same path, with marriage in two key states (Argentina and Mexico) and equal rights in other places (including strong leadership by Brazil). 

The combination of Western European and Latin America support has turned the tide at the United Nations, allowing (a) the accreditation of LGBT NGOs for lobbying purposes, (b) support from UN human rights experts, and (c) the first resolution by a UN political body in June, 2011, supporting LGBT rights (in the Human Rights Council). 

There is now some jockeying for applause by leading states. Which country has taken the lead and should get special praise? Is it the Netherlands? Is it Brazil? Is it France? Is it Argentina? Is it the UK? Is it the US? We have become fashionable! Hillary Clinton was photographed with a clutch of LGBT leaders from around the world after her speech.

Who is on the other side? Russia. States in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Most of Black Africa. Who says nothing? India. China (which has stopped simply siding with opposing states on the issues).

The Netherlands must get the ‘lifetime career’ Oscar. It had the first post-war gay organization, and led in funding both for local and international LGBT organizations. Its domestic policy was termed gay and lesbian ‘emancipation.’ In 2001 it was the first country to open marriage. HIVOS, a humanist foundation, administers a part of Dutch foreign aid, and its name is inevitably on the supporters list for international events.  Sweden also gets credit now for supporting the International Lesbian and Gay Association.

The 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna was the first ‘coming out’ party for governments. Five stepped forward to state their support for gay and lesbian equality rights: Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. Singapore also stepped forward – the only government to state their hostility to homosexual rights (and skepticism about human rights in general). 

In 2003 Brazil, with no advance warning, introduced a resolution in the UN Commission on Human Rights supporting equal rights. It quickly gained 27 co-sponsors, but active hostility from a set of Black African and Muslim countries. There was a filibuster, a postponement and the quiet death of the initiative two years later.  While the attempt seemed a clumsy failure at the time, the ice was broken at the UN. Brazil went on to introduce the most comprehensive domestic policy anyone had ever seen, under the title “Brazil without Homophobia.” 

After the failure of the ‘Brazilian resolution’, a practice began of groups of states backing a positive ‘statement’ supporting LGBT rights in the Human Rights Commission, now the Human Rights Council. 31 signed on in 2005.  54 in 2006. 66 in 2008 (in a statement in the General Assembly, the result of a French initiative). 85 in 2011. As simple ‘statements,’ there was no voting. 

The US first became active in late 2010 when, in committee, a reference to sexual orientation was deleted from a resolution condemning extrajudicial killings. After a flurry of diplomatic activity on a very short time line, the US moved to restore the words when the resolution came before the General Assembly as a whole. 93 states supported restoration. Some states that had never supported LGBT rights nevertheless agreed that vigilante killings were to be condemned. 

South Africa played an odd role. It was the first country to specifically condemn sexual orientation discrimination in its constitution. It has decriminalized and opened marriage. But the constitution was ahead of public opinion, and South Africa sought to be a regional leader for Black Africa. It did not support the 2003 Brazilian resolution. But in 2011 it wanted to say something.  After negotiations and consultations a new resolution was developed to go to the Human Rights Council. 

The resolution on 17 June, 2011, was mild but substantive. It called for a study and ongoing consideration of LGBT issues. South Africa had such credibility as a sponsor, that opposition was muted. 23 states voted in favor, 19 against, with 3 abstentions.  Opposition came from Black African and Muslim states. Nigeria claimed that 90% of South Africans did not support the resolution. Asian opposition came from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Malaysia.  Japan, South Korea and Thailand supported the resolution. China abstained.

In December, 2011, the US declared active support, with the major speech in Geneva by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a directive to US governmental agencies by President Barrack Obama. The US Congress played no role in these policy developments.

Hillary Clinton’s speech brought together what were by now the standard supportive arguments.  Homosexuality, she said, was not a Western phenomenon (though the support base at the UN was Western). As well, she argued, religious and cultural traditions should not override the individual rights of LGBT individuals to equal treatment and personal dignity.  It was a good speech.

One of the leading Republican candidates for president, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, condemned the initiatives of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama.  He accuses Obama of supporting “special rights” for homosexuals, and conducting a “war on religion.”  There is no bipartisan consensus on gay rights in US politics. The Clinton/Obama positions could be reversed.  Equally the conservatives who now form the government in Spain have promised to repeal marriage rights. 

In contrast, LGBT rights issues have become non-partisan in many parts of the West. The most remarkable statement in recent years was that of David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to a party convention in October, 2011: 
… I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative.  I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.
Cameron has gone further than Tony Blair (who introduced civil partnerships). In Canada support is non-partisan, after a free vote in parliament endorsed the opening of marriage. Multi-party support is clear in most of the EU. It may be clear, as well, in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. 

Asia remains on the sidelines. Tolerant Thailand avoided support at every opportunity. Domestic lobbying led to a shift. Support began with the statement in March, 2011, in the Human Rights Council and continued with the vote on the South African resolution in June. Japan, the Philippines and South Korea have supported at times, and abstained at times. Indian foreign and domestic policy has not seen any particular change since the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexual acts in 2009. 

The greatest changes in domestic policies in Asia have occurred in Nepal and Taiwan. China is sleeping on the issue, not opposing. 

There are some early signs of dawn in Asia, some light on the horizon. No date yet for the release of Breaking Dawn: Part Two.

Doug Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor living in Bangkok.  He can be contacted at sanders_gwb @
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