Why Did the US Vote Against a UN Resolution Condemning the Execution of Gay People?

On September 29, the United States joined Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in opposing a Human Rights Council resolution that specifically condemned the use of the death penalty as a punishment for consensual same sex relations. The non-binding resolution passed anyway, with overwhelming support from Europe, Latin America and other democracies around the world.

The resolution condemns “the imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.” The resolution did not specifically condemn the death penalty, which is legal in many UN member states. But it did note that poor people and minorities are disproportionately subject to it.

Many are perplexed as to why the United States would join these illiberal countries in voting against this resolution. To be sure death penalty is legal in the United States, but so too is same sex marriage. And the US certainly doesn’t put people to death for it.

The US position on this resolution signals a reversion to the George W. Bush era of American hostility to LGBT rights at UN Bodies.

During the George W. Bush era, the United States routinely sided with socially conservative countries to stall global progress on LGBT rights. This most often manifested itself in a UN committee known as the Economic and Social Council, which grants credentials to NGOs to access the United Nations headquarters. For years the Bush administration joined countries like Egypt and Russia to prevent an international gay rights organization from obtaining its credential. This was part of an overall approach to these issues that sought to block UN resolutions that advanced LGBT rights and equalities. Indeed, in its last weeks of the Bush administration, the United States voted against a General Assembly resolution calling for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality.

This overtly hostile position on global LGBT rights at the UN was quickly reversed by the Obama administration. Within months of taking office, Ambassador Susan Rice successfully lobbied the ECOSOC committee, and  the LGBT rights organization finally got its credential. To underscore the importance the new administration placed on advancing LGBT rights at the UN, President Obama himself released a statement after the vote. “I welcome this important step forward for human rights, as the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission (ILGHRC) will take its rightful seat at the table of the United Nations,” he said. “The United Nations is closer to the ideals on which it was founded, and to values of inclusion and equality to which the United States is deeply committed.”

That the White House released such a public statement about an organization receiving the functional equivalent of a grounds pass to the UN was a harbinger of things to come.

Nearly one year to the day later, the UN Human Rights Council — with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on hand to cast the US vote — approved a resolution that formally absorbed LGBT rights into the broader UN human rights architecture. Despite opposition from conservative countries, the resolution passed and LGBT rights became human rights in the eyes of the UN system.

Throughout its eight years in office, the Obama administration routinely defended and advanced LGBT rights at the UN. This manifest itself in nearly every forum in the UN system. The last big showdown came two weeks after the 2016 election, when a resolution at the General Assembly affirmed the mandate of a new UN official whose job is specifically focused on protecting LGBT rights worldwide.

Enter the Trump administration

Even before this vote at the Human Rights Council last week, there were some clear indications that the Trump administration would be no friend to LGBT rights at the UN.  In March, the White House sent the president of a stridently anti-gay group C-FAM (which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a “hate group”) to serve on the US delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women.

Now, with its action at the human rights council, it would seem  the Trump administration is poised to revert to the George W. Bush era of using American influence at the UN to block global progress on LGBT rights around the world.

UPDATE: Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council explains how he would have dealt with this resolution

UPDATE 2: Nikki Haley suggests this vote was the same to one taken by the Obama administration.

This is not correct on two counts. First, the 2014 Human Rights Council resolution did not specifically mention the execution of gay people. Second, the USA did not vote against that resolution. Rather, it abstained.