UN victory for gay rights supporters

December 22, 2010

Suporters of rights for gays and lesbians worldwide secured a major victory at the United Nations this week. The 192-nation U.N. General Assembly voted to restore a reference to killings due to sexual orientation that had been deleted from a resolution condemning unjustified slayings. The shift came after the United States submitted an amendment to restore the reference, which the General Assembly’s human rights committee removed last month from a resolution on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions that is adopted every two years.

The U.S. amendment that restored the reference to sexual orientation was adopted with 93 votes in favor, 55 against and 27 abstentions. The amended resolution was then approved with 122 yes votes, one against and 62 abstentions. (Saudi Arabia cast the sole vote against the resolution, and the United States was among those who abstained.)

The committee’s deletion of the reference last month — at the proposal of African and Arab nations — had outraged Western countries and human rights activists. Similar resolutions adopted in previous years have explicitly mentioned killings due to sexual preference, along with slayings for racial, national, ethnic, religious or linguistic reasons and killings of refugees, indigenous people and other groups.

Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), was pleased with the outcome. “The outpouring of support from the international community sent the strong message to our representatives at the U.N. that it is unacceptable to make invisible the deadly violence LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people face because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.”

Not everyone was happy. Zimbabwe’s U.N. Ambassador Chitsaka Chipaziwa told the General Assembly that there was no need to refer explicitly to sexual orientation: “We will not have it foisted on us. We cannot accept this, especially if it entails accepting such practices as bestiality, pedophilia and those other practices many societies would find abhorrent in their value systems.” A European diplomat later told Reuters that Chipaziwa’s statement was “disgraceful.”

The opposition to the U.S. amendment came mainly from African and Muslim states. However, they had powerful support from diplomatic heavyweights like China and Russia, both of which voted against including a reference to slayings of people because of their sexual orientation. Several states that had voted against the inclusion in November reversed their positions and voted for the U.S. amendment this week, among them the African nations South Africa and Rwanda.

Although President Barack Obama himself welcomed the adoption of the U.S. amendment, Washington sent an ambiguous signal of support by abstaining from the vote on the amended resolution condemning extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions. The U.S. delegation did not explain its abstention. Several Western diplomats suggested that the U.S. abstention was unrelated to the issue of sexual orientation, but was connected with the U.S. use of unmanned drones to kill suspected Taliban and al Qaeda militants in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, explained the U.S. abstention as follows: “We have made clear throughout that we would abstain on the overall resolution, as we have in the past, due to reasons unrelated to the language on sexual orientation. The resolution obscures the relationship between international humanitarian law and human rights law and contributes to legal uncertainty in this area.”

Dan Littauer, editor of the website Gay Middle East, warned that supporters of gay and lesbian rights still have work to do at the United Nations: “It seems that the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference), Arab, and some of the African nations are not going to give up easily on this issue and are planning further action to battle against this nascent international legal recognition.”


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