A new policy affecting the dependents of United Nations staff members in same-sex marriages could be overturned in a vote by the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee on Tuesday. The new policy being challenged signifies a small step toward eliminating discrimination in the UN. Overturning it would be a major step backward for equal treatment of staff members, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Last July, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that the UN would recognize same-sex marriages of all staff members, no matter where the marriages took place. The policy represented a huge stride for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people. Yet the battle has not been won, as the driving force behind the vote being called on March 24 is, unsurprisingly, Russia.
The UN offers financial benefits to its staff members’ dependents, including spouses and children, but the general rule is that it recognizes only those marriages that are legal in an employee’s home country. As a result, for example, the UN provides benefits for up to four wives — and the children of such unions — of staff members from countries where polygamy is legal. In many ways, this policy makes sense, as it allows individuals from every member state to work as an international civil servant without fear that his or her dependents will not receive the recognition or benefits they would receive in the home country’s national civil service.
Clearly, the UN cannot discriminate against its own employees based on race, religion or nationality, and the policy on dependents is meant to ensure that does not happen.
Until last summer, the UN recognized only the same-sex marriages of staff members whose home countries recognized marriage equality. Since the vast majority of countries across the world do not legitimize same-sex marriages, staff members in such unions, legalized outside their home countries, found that their dependents were not eligible for benefits enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts.
The UN was perpetuating the discrimination that occurs against LGBT people in a large number of its own member states.
The new policy announced by Ban ought to be supported by all UN member states, but advancing LGBT rights generally is anathema for a sizable minority of the members. While positive steps have been taken toward equal marriage rights in France, Britain and 37 states in the United States, criminalization of homosexual acts across almost all African and Islamic countries is far more the norm.
More than 70 countries criminalize LGBT acts. In those and other countries, systematic oppression of and discrimination against sexual and gender minorities continue. Many of those countries stand at the fore of the campaigns to ensure that LGBT rights are not recognized by the UN.
Almost always, Russia has been leading the campaign to stop protecting the rights of LGBT people. This stance mirrors national policies introduced in Russia in recent years. The country has taken retrogressive measures against LGBT persons, such as the 2013 law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” and has failed to prosecute those who commit hate crimes against sexual orientation and gender identity minorities.
Despite criticism of those policies during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Russia used its economic and political clout to ignore calls for changes to those laws. Russia is not alone in criminalizing or discriminating against LGBT people or in seeking to push back their rights. In leading the campaign, Russia has relied on allies from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, of which it is a member, as well as countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. All together, they make up a significant minority of the UN.
The campaign is played out through the steady stream of resolutions passed in the UN Human Rights Council on protecting “traditional values” or “the family,” a reaction to advancing LGBT rights. In 2011, the council passed the first UN resolution on such rights, but the next year all but two Islamic countries protested a panel discussion on the topic. Since then, no further resolution has been proposed.
The notion of a traditional family as consisting of a man, a woman and children discriminates against a whole range of family units, including grandparents, foster families, single parents, victims of domestic violence and others who do not fall neatly into the traditional category. But resolutions promoting “the family” continue unabated because supporters of the campaign are concerned with one thing only: to ensure that LGBT rights get swept off the table. (They stand no chance, either, of being part of the Sustainable Development Goals.)
It is those countries engaged in the fight against LGBT people’s rights that will surely vote on Tuesday to overturn the UN’s new policy. If the rest of the world does not take a stance, the UN will once again find itself discriminating against its own staff members.
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Dr. Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, England. Her research focuses on the United Nations and human rights, particularly the political effects on international human-rights law. Dr. Freedman has published extensively on the UN Human Rights Council and is working on a British Academy-funded project on UN special procedures. Her other main research project is on UN peacekeeping and accountability for human-rights abuses committed during such operations.
Dr. Freedman has published two books, “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” and “The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment.” Her academic articles have appeared in such journals as the European Journal of International Law and Human Rights Quarterly. She also writes for national and digital media, works closely with the UN and with state governments and sits on the advisory boards of international NGOs.
Dr. Freedman received a master of laws degree from University College London and a Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London.