A Victory for LGBT Rights at the UN

LGBT rights secured a major bureaucratic victory at the United Nations today when member states overwhelmingly voted down a Russian-backed proposal to curtail benefits afforded to the same-sex spouses of UN staff. The vote failed by a margin of nearly 2:1. 77 countries voted against the bill, and only 44 supported it, while 36 abstained.

At issue was a directive issued last year by Ban Ki Moon to extend partner benefits to all United Nations staff in same sex unions, regardless of nationality. Previously, only spouses from countries where same sex unions are legal were afforded regular spouse benefits. Russia lodged an objection to this measure, which was finally put to a vote in the UN’s budget committee today.

The vote breakdown is particularly interesting. As expected, Russia was backed by socially conservative countries, mostly in the middle east and Asia. North America and Europe were all solidly opposed. Latin America titled against the measure. The swing votes in Africa and Asia, though, mostly tilted toward abstentions, thereby assuring the measure would fail. This is despite the fact that, particularly in Africa, opposition to LGBT rights is often a politically expedient wedge issue.



Today’s vote is the latest step in what has been unrelenting progress toward LGBT equality and rights in the UN system. This shift has largely coincided with the change in US political leadership in 2009 when Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush. The change happened exceedingly fast. About three weeks after Obama took office, in February 2009, the USA voted for a Genera Assembly resolution condemning “all forms of discrimination and all other human rights violations based on sexual orientation.” Just 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 be more expansively welcoming to same sex partners.

This simply would not have been possible without the support of the USA. And today’s vote is a good example why that is.

The USA used its influence and compel countries on the fence to abstain from today’s vote, thereby ensuring its failure. Without a US government so deeply engaged on these issues at the United Nations the vote tally might have been much different and this indignity against LGBT rights may have stood a better chance of succeeding.