Before this year ends, the United Nations will have committed itself and its 193 member governments to a new 15-year development strategy to be hailed as a blueprint for ending poverty, expanding social justice and strengthening equality. Equality for whom is the question. Missing by deliberate design from the new plan, called the Sustainable Development Goals, are the rights of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) people.
The decision to exclude LGBT populations runs sharply counter to the global expansion of single-sex marriage and the appearance of more campaigns to end discrimination and prosecution of people who, not incidentally, have much to offer developing societies in commitment and skills. The exclusion of LGBT (and LGBTQ) people also flies in the face of demands in the UN system itself for the right to all gender identity choices and equal treatment without distinction in all aspects of life, including in health care, freedom to adopt children, protection under the law and economic opportunity.
Nevertheless, Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian development expert who has been leading the working group drafting the new development goals, publicly declared last September that gay rights were “off the table.” For numerous governments, she suggested, this is apparently an unacceptable subject for a human development policy. So far, nothing has changed that perception.
In the UN, however, two secretaries-general, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, have supported nondiscrimination in staffing and given space to an active UN employees’ organization, UN-Global, which advocates for LGBT rights. The barriers to further progress rest with those homophobic governments that are not only blocking mention of LGBT rights in the development goals for 2015-2030 but are also actively trying to roll back advances in the Secretariat and UN agencies.
This situation provides a classic illustration of the tensions that arise on many issues between the “two UNs” — the thousands of career international civil servants led by the secretary-general, who run the place and all its outlying offices and missions from day to day, and the club of member nations whose diplomats surround and lobby the organization in their own national interests. These envoys are often wrongly described as “UN diplomats,” as they are actually working for their political leaders at home and not for the UN.
Tension between the two sides erupted most recently in late March, as reported in PassBlue, when Russia called for a vote in the General Assembly budget committee to overturn a policy introduced by Ban last July that recognizes same-sex marriages and extends certain benefits to these families, no matter what the laws of their home countries may say. The Russian move was, apart from an assault on LGBT rights, a direct challenge to Ban’s administrative authority. He stuck to his policy. The members present in the General Assembly voted against the Russian measure, 80 to 43, with 37 abstentions. (There were also some no-shows.)
Hyung Hak Nam, the president of UN-Globe, wrote a letter to Ban in April, thanking him for his efforts in defeating the Russian measure. “We view this as a step forward for equality for LGBTI staff in the UN system,” he wrote, using his group’s use of an additional category described as Intersex. In the letter, Nam also called for further steps toward more rights in the UN system (including in the employee pension fund) and for bringing into line an outlier like the International Labor Organization, which has not changed its policies on same-sex marriages.
Nam and others who lobbied against the Russian measure credited the Obama administration for its active role in saving the secretary-general’s policy. Repeatedly in UN bodies and debates, the United States has strongly backed LGBT rights in recent years, as has Britain. The senior LGBT coordinator in the US Agency for International Development, Todd Larson, worked in the UN for 20 years and is personally familiar with the anguish many staff members have endured.
“Early in my career my partner was killed in the employ of the UN,” he wrote on President Obama’s official website in 2012, “and in the aftermath I had no official standing to do such basic things, such as obtain copies of reports describing the circumstances surrounding his death. Though I eventually prevailed, under internal UN advances shepherded by the Obama administration, I would not face that challenge today.”
Nam said in an interview that international attitudes toward gay rights, reflected in the vote tallies on March 24, are not born of ideological differences but rather of powerful cultural divides among nations worldwide. The Americas and Europe voted almost unanimously against the Russian proposal. Voting with the Russians was a phalanx of Arab nations and Iran, along with Nicaragua (alone in the Western Hemisphere) and numerous African and Asian countries, among them China and India.
Siddharth Dube, an early campaigner for LGBT rights in both India and the UN system, is outraged by the vote cast by India, a large and vibrant democracy, against Ban’s policy changes. The author of “In the Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family, 1947-1997” and “Sex, Lies and AIDS,” Dube has worked at the World Bank, Unicef and UNAIDS, among other international organizations, and he said that India’s position at the UN does not reflect the rapidly evolving social attitudes of Indians.
In his latest book, “No One Else,” which will appear later this year in India and in the US, he describes his own odyssey from a privileged upper-class childhood through his years of self-discovery to his emergence as a global leader for gay rights, amid the backdrop of significant social change in India. As someone who had known his share of persecution and prosecution, he said, he can now feel comfortable and safe in Indian society.
Dube said that India’s “scandalous” vote in the UN is in keeping with the record of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which was elected to power last year. The BJP, as it is known, was the only party not to welcome a Delhi High Court decision in 2009 to overturn a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexual relations, which was widely welcomed by the public. In 2013, a legal challenge within the party’s most retrograde ranks succeeded in getting the High Court ruling overturned in the Indian Supreme Court, where a judge famously called same-sex relations “against the order of nature.” Sexual relations between consenting adults of the same sex can bring a 10-year jail sentence.
“Now it’s a foreign policy issue when it wasn’t one earlier,” Dube said of the UN vote in the General Assembly.
Back at the UN, Hyung Hak Nam, of UN-Global, said that his organization would not join the human-rights organizations, gay rights advocacy groups, several governments and nongovernmental relief and development groups working to add gender identity rights to the Sustainable Development Goals, even though time has almost run out. UN-Global’s priority now is to campaign in the UN Secretariat to take same-sex rights to the next level by tackling mobility, which covers the hurdles UN staff members face when they want to move abroad with same-sex spouses and often families.
“If you want to advance in the UN, you have to serve in many countries,” Nam said. “Some of the countries are homophobic. We still need a mobility policy.” That would involve demanding visa agreements with governments that would allow same-sex couples to move abroad together — a policy the World Bank has successfully enforced for years. Now, Nam said, a UN employee has nothing but bad choices: to leave a family in New York or in another tolerant place; turn down an assignment in an unwelcoming country and jeopardize a UN career; or leave the UN.
Many UN staff members are still afraid to declare that they are LGBT or living in same-sex marriages or partnerships, Nam said, because this can not only harm their careers but also bring on discriminatory behavior or intolerable pressures against them. “The culture in the UN is changing, becoming more open,” he said. “But we still have quite a ways to go.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.