A Win for LGBT Rights at the Last Big UN Showdown of the Obama Era

Human rights activists dodged a bullet in the General Assembly yesterday when a majority of countries rejected a cynical ploy to defang a newly established LGBT rights watchdog.

Countries voted 84 to 77 to keep in place the mandate of the “independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

This was a position created by the UN Human Rights Council in June to monitor the “protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, and gender identity.” The newly created position stands alongside other independent experts and rights monitors dispatched by the Human Rights Council to monitor and report on a number of issues, from the rights of the disabled to the freedom of assembly and free expression. There are more than 40 of these independent experts in all.

The position is held by a Thai human rights expert named Vitit Muntarbhorn. But shortly after the position was created, a number of culturally conservative countries began a mini-revolt. Botswana lead an effort in the General Assembly (which unlike the 42 member Human Rights Council includes every UN member state) to essentially reverse the Human Rights Council’s decision. They argued that the concept of LGBT rights are not universal, and therefore a UN-backed independent expert has no standing.

Their argument failed–though somewhat narrowly. Human rights groups around the world are pleased.

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This was the last Big Global LGBT Showdown of the Obama Era

This vote at the UN will likely be one of the last big showdowns on LGBT rights of the Obama administration. This was an era in which, for the first time, the USA consistently sided wth LGBT groups to more fully integrate LGBT rights into the broader UN human rights agenda. During the Bush administration, the US government tended to side with conservative countries in the Middle East and Africa in opposition to expanding human rights to include LGBT issues, even blocking NGOs that advocate on behalf of gay rights from accessing UN grounds.

That all changed nearly overnight when President Obama took office.

Just weeks after his inauguration the USA voted for a Genera Assembly resolution condemning “all forms of discrimination and all other human rights violations based on sexual orientation.” (Two months prior, the Bush administration voted against a similar resolution calling for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality.)

Since then, the American leadership has been pretty instrumental in pushing through both incremental measures (like supporting UN accreditation for LGBT rights NGOs) and sweeping reforms like an historic June 2011 Human Rights Council resolution recognizing discrimination against LGBT communities as a global human rights problem.

That American support for LGBT rights at the UN has given Ban Ki Moon the political space he needed to push the envelope, even when faced with opposition from culturally conservative countries. In 2012 he created the UN Free and Equal Campaign, which has helped mainstream LGBT rights throughout the entire UN system. It also gave him the space to be able to lead by example and change personnel policy to include spousal benefits for same sex couples. (A Russian move to block that change was defeated by a majority of countries)

This “mainstreaming” of LGBT rights into the fabric the the UN human rights portfolio would not have been possible without the support of the USA. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the next administration builds on these accomplishments or reverts to an era when LGBT rights were treated as secondary or tertiary rights issues at the UN.