Assessing U.S. Engagement on LGBTI Issues at the United Nations

Posted by Wesley Reisser
October 26, 2016
In a historic vote, the Human Rights Council voted June 30 to create the first UN Independent Expert dedicated to investigate and report on human rights abuses against LGBT people around the world. [U.S. Mission Geneva photo]

During the past eight years, the United States has made some serious strides with respect to the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons at every level of our federal system: the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, and the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Act are all good examples. While we have a way to go to ensure that all people are treated equally under Federal law, the situation for LGBTI individuals in certain parts of the world is extremely dire. Over 70 countries still criminalize same-sex relations, and in a fraction of those countries LGBTI individuals face the possibility of the death penalty. That translates to hundreds of thousands of people who cannot live openly and freely, and if they do, they are subject to harassment, persecution, and violence. We are seeing this in every region all over the globe; this is not simply a problem limited to a single country, culture, or religion. 

The Obama administration has made an unprecedented commitment to addressing this trend globally. We’ve done this on the ground, and the United States has engaged robustly at the United Nations (UN) and various other international organizations over the past seven years to ensure that the human rights of LGBTI persons are protected as part of our broader work to promote human rights. We’ve worked to ensure international human rights obligations and commitments are met through these bodies. One groundbreaking example in New York was an “Arria Formula” meeting, held at the UN Security Council to focus on ISIL’s brutal campaign of terror towards gay men living in areas under ISIL control. In these areas, men have been thrown from rooftops or stoned to death merely because of who they are. This event was led by the United States and Chile, demonstrating our efforts to work with diverse partners on LGBTI issues. This effort to diversify our partnerships is also evident in our engagement with the UN’s LGBT Core Group, which now has over 20 members from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific region.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishments to date on LGBTI issues at the UN took place at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland to focus new attention to the devastating impact that government policies have on the human rights of LGBTI persons. In 2011, we proudly partnered with South Africa to ensure passage of the first-ever UN resolution on the human rights of LGBTI persons, adopted by the Council. We also worked closely with Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay on the passage of a second resolution at the Council in 2014. The United States has also co-hosted multiple events with Brazil at the Council on bias-motivated violence against LGBTI individuals, featuring police and other practitioners who are on the front lines addressing these problems in communities. In June, we worked with partners in Latin America to establish the first global LGBTI expert -- Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand -- who was just appointed in September.

It is often said that resolutions and events taking place in diplomatic meeting rooms in New York and Geneva don’t make much difference. These actions and resolutions, however, have translated into moving the needle on the perception of LGBTI rights and equality internationally.

I recently sat down with Jean Freedberg, deputy director of HRC Global at the Human Rights Campaign -- the largest U.S. organization advocating on behalf of LGBTQ people -- to discuss the real world effects of our multilateral efforts. You can listen to our conversation in our latest podcast below:

The United States is seeking re-election to the Council on October 28 after a mandatory year off. Our ability to engage this body to build on successes over the course of the Obama Administration is truly critical. Through the Council, the UN, and other international organizations, we will continue to fight for LGBTI equality and human rights for all.

About the Author: Dr. Wesley Reisser serves as Senior Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of International Organizations at the U.S. Department of State.

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