Davos pusillanimity watch, LGBT rights edition

January 23, 2014

For an organization which loves to talk about the importance of social responsibility and civil society, it’s notable that the WEF has never had a panel on LGBT rights. This year, however, the issue has finally become impossible to avoid. Russia is in the midst of a poisonous campaign against its LGBT citizens; once the Winter Olympics are over, that crackdown is only going to get worse. And in Nigeria, where homosexuality has always been illegal and dangerous, president Goodluck Jonathan — who is here in Davos — recently signed into law a brutal new piece of legislation which makes even supporting gay rights punishable by ten years in prison; a round of arrests under the new law has already begun.

At the same time, the community of LGBT supporters is larger and more powerful than ever, and their message has finally made its way into Davos, if not into the formal WEF program. This morning, there was a classic Davos power breakfast under the title “The Global Fight for LGBT Equality”, which drew some very boldface names, including two US senators (Patrick Leahy and Claire McCaskill) as well as Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights. The breakfast was sponsored by a broad cross-section of WEF partners: corporate support came from Credit Suisse, the Huffington Post, Microsoft, and Time Warner, while the main people making the breakfast happen were two big-name hedge-fund managers, Paul Singer and Dan Loeb.

The breakfast took place directly across the street from the forbidding concrete walls of the conference center, and one of the big questions was whether the clear sense of urgency and importance in the room would help the cause receive more official WEF recognition next year. As Miriam Elder says, the answer would seem to be no:

Event organizers said the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos had declined to host the LGBT event; the main gathering in Davos this year features guests like Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who recently blessed the world’s most repressive law restricting LGBT rights.

“The organizers reached out to WEF but it quickly became clear that this program would not be regarded as ‘appropriate’ for the official Congress Center program,” a person familiar with the planning of the event told BuzzFeed.

It certainly doesn’t seem to be a simple oversight that the WEF has failed to address this issue so far. The sponsors of the breakfast, as well as other strategic partners like Goldman Sachs and (yes) Thomson Reuters, are very vocal about this issue, and there’s no shortage of WEF staff who are sympathetic to the cause. Panels on the issue have surely been proposed many times — which means that if we’ve never seen one, that’s because all such events have been systematically vetoed at a very high level.

The reason for such a veto is easy to surmise. Heads of state are at the top of the pecking order in Davos, and any LGBT panel would undoubtedly be very rude about individuals like Goodluck Jonathan and Vladimir Putin. The way the WEF works, if someone like Putin makes it clear that he doesn’t want any such panel to take place, then the panel won’t take place. Indeed, the WEF organizers, who constitutionally err on the side of overcaution, would probably veto any such panel just in case a powerful head of state might object.

Still, the issue is alive now, it’s not going away, and it’s causing serious problems for Davos regulars like Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. I’m a huge fan of Ngozi’s, but this is not her finest hour: every time that she’s asked about LGBT rights in Nigeria, she gives a what-can-we-do answer about how the law is very popular among Nigerians and how therefore the president had no choice but to sign it. As Fareed Zakaria noted in today’s event, that answer misses the difference between a tyranny-of-the-majority democracy, on the one hand, and a grown-up liberal democracy, on the other. Humans don’t lose their rights just because they’re in the minority, and it’s the job of any democratic leader to refuse to support the forces of intolerance and hate within his country. Besides, as Richard Branson said at the breakfast, you can get pretty much any result you like, in an opinion poll, depending on how you ask the question.

There is an enormous gap between what Okonjo-Iweala can and should be doing, on the one hand, and what she’s actually doing, on the other. Firstly, she should recognize that the issue of LGBT rights in Nigeria is a very important one, and work hard to be a voice of reason and tolerance within the Nigerian government. Far from threatening the WEF if it puts on a gay-rights panel, she should encourage it to do so, and she should even volunteer to participate.

Okonjo-Iweala should also embrace the argument that LGBT rights are an economic issue: that the current climate in Nigeria is so hateful that it will certainly have a negative effect on inward investment and the propensity of multinational companies to operate in the country. Instead, when she’s presented with that argument, she sneers at the westerners with their bleeding hearts, and says that if the west doesn’t want to do business with Nigeria, then the likes of China and India surely will. Investors from those countries, she says, would never let the issue of LGBT rights color their investment decisions. She’s sadly correct on that front, but in embracing the investors who don’t care about LGBT rights, she’s giving up a prime opportunity to place herself on the side of the angels.

Finally, and most importantly, Okonjo-Iweala should simply and clearly come out against the law. After all, she’s not an elected official: she doesn’t need to worry about being voted out of office. She’s happy to say that her own children have no beef with LGBT people, but she consistently stops short of personally saying that she believes in gay rights and LGBT equality.

The breakfast this morning featured a panel of LGBT activists from around the world: Alice Nkom from Cameroon, Masha Gessen from Russia, and Dane Lewis from Jamaica. There was no one from Nigeria, mainly because it’s considered too dangerous, now, for any Nigerian to align themselves in any way with the LGBT community. Ordinary Nigerians, even if they’re sympathetic with the LGBT cause, have good reason to keep their mouths shut; that’s exactly why it’s important for someone like Okonjo-Iweala to step up.

At the breakfast, Sweden’s minister for European Affairs, Birgitta Ohlsson, worried out loud that if westerners were too vocal when it came to preaching human rights. She was worried that such tactics might misfire in proud sovereign countries; she also said that it was “silent” pressure from the west which persuaded Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, to refuse to sign a new anti-gay law in the country.

Ohlsson’s argument did not go down well with the panel: while behind-the-scenes pressure can indeed be effective, it is almost never weakened by outside public support. Still, it’s undoubtedly true that if there’s no domestic opposition to a bill, then it’s probably going to end up getting passed. As a result, powerful Nigerians like Okonjo-Iweala have a moral obligation to speak out.

In doing so, Okonjo-Iweala would certainly be on the right side of history. LGBT rights are not confined to countries like Sweden: Argentina, for instance, has the most progressive gender equality law in the world, while South Africa was the first country to enshrine LGBT rights in its constitution. Today, 60 countries ban discrimination against homosexuals; 16 countries have same-sex marriage; and many more have some formal mechanism to recognize same-sex partnerships or civil unions. Those numbers are only going to increase, but progress will not be linear: Nigeria is by far the biggest economy in the region, and there’s a lot of fear in countries like Cameroon that its anti-gay stance will prove contagious.

Tragically, Okonjo-Iweala has decided instead to simply fall in behind her president. Such pusillanimity is the norm in Davos; we can expect the global corporate sector to similarly ignore this issue. Many companies have a strong record of being gay-friendly in the US, but then turn around and extend no particular protections or benefits to their gay employees in less tolerant countries. Here’s one area where the WEF can be helpful: encourage global companies like Coca-Cola or Citigroup to make sure that all their gay employees are treated equally, including the ones in countries like Russia and Nigeria.

But that’s not going to happen as long as the WEF refuses to give this issue any kind of visibility. A single breakfast on the sidelines isn’t remotely enough. It’s long past time for the WEF to embrace a cause which, I’m pretty sure, is personally supported by a majority of the delegates in Davos. Here’s hoping it happens in 2015.


Comments are closed.