Remarks at the Human Rights Campaign Equality Convention and Board Meeting

Uzra Zeya
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
March 15, 2014

I’m so honored to be here and I’d like to thank Chad and the Human Rights Campaign for the invitation to speak today. I’d like to welcome Caitlin back from her inspiring trip to Russia, where she represented the American people with pride and dignity, and two remarkable activists from the Caribbean, Caleb Orozco and Dane Lewis, who you will hear from in just a few minutes. We’ve been following your work and deeply admire your personal courage.

Recently, there have been long overdue advances for the rights of LGBT persons in the United States thanks in large part to the advocacy and steadfast determination of groups like the Human Rights Campaign, and for that, I applaud you. We view HRC as a vital partner as we work to advance equality for all and look forward to strengthening this partnership. Of course, the positive momentum we are witnessing in this country is not free of hurdles, and indeed, as we look beyond our border, notably in Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda, governments are cracking down on the ability of LGBT persons to live their lives with dignity , safety, and freedom.

Today, I’d like to tell you about the Department of State’s work to protect human rights for all, globally. I couldn’t think of a better group to address on this issue than HRC; a group of Americans who are staunchly committed to equality in our own country. This commitment to promoting human rights is deeply rooted in our country’s founding principles, was further championed by Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations resulting in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reinforced recently by President Obama in his naming of openly-gay and lesbian American athletes to the U.S. delegation to the Sochi Olympics.

Protecting human rights is at the heart of our diplomacy, and we work to reinforce their universality. No individual falls outside of the framework of human rights protections, and governments have a responsibility to protect and promote those rights. Governments that deny rights to sections of their population, be it women, LGBT persons, persons with disabilities, or others, are not only failing to use the full potential of their citizens, but will also hamper their own prosperity and stability.

Part of our work includes monitoring and documenting human rights abuses committed against LGBT persons. On February 27, Secretary Kerry released the 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Every one of the 199 reportsincludes a specific section on the human rights of LGBT persons.

The reports show that nearly 80 countries criminalize same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults or use other laws to prosecute and persecute LGBT persons, and we have seen countries enact new, even more restrictive legislation recently. For example, late last month, Ugandan President Museveni assented to a law that imposes harsh punishments with similar restrictions to freedom of association and expression, and adds a variety of new offenses such as “promotion of” and “aiding and abetting” homosexuality. Earlier this year the Nigerian president signed a law that not only criminalizes the display of same-sex intimate cohabitation, but also the support for meetings of LGBT persons or any type of LGBT organization. And last June the Russian government enacted an anti-gay propaganda law that criminalizes free expression with respect to “non traditional” sexual relations. Since the law’s passage, we have seen an increase in violence and harassment of LGBT persons.

Closer to home, 11 countries in the Caribbean basin criminalize same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. While governments rarely enforce these colonial-era holdovers, we have seen time and again that laws that discriminate serve to validate discrimination, harassment, and violence. Other countries, such as Cameroon continue to actively enforce laws under which multiple people were arrested and detained because of their same-sex relationships.

The Country Reports also demonstrate that violence and discrimination against LGBT persons continue to be a serious problem beyond those countries that criminalize LGBT status. Transgender individuals face particular risk for harassment and violence, as in El Salvador, where a transgender woman employee of a local LGBT organization was brutally murdered in May. And even in countries such as Albania and Chile which have legal frameworks that protect the human rights of LGBT persons, civil society and the media still report high rates of societal violence against LGBT persons.

In light of these challenges, President Obama and others at the highest levels in the U.S. government continue to champion equal treatment for LGBT persons around the world. In his 2011 Presidential Memorandum, the president directed all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that our diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons. This memorandum specifically directs us to combat criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad; protect LGBT refugees and asylum seekers; use foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination; respond swiftly and meaningfully to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad; and engage international organizations in the fight against LGBT discrimination.

At the Department of State, we have stepped up to the challenge. Secretary Kerry has reaffirmed our commitment to combat discriminatory laws and practices that target LGBT persons. And he has continued the work post-DOMA to ensure that every employee and his or her spouse, in Washington or at post, can have access to their due benefits regardless of sexual orientation. The Bureau of Consular Affairs now systematically ensures that online information is available about countries where there are concerns about harassment, threats or violence against LGBT individuals, or where consensual same-sex sexual relations are criminalized – including punishment by the death penalty in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia. And my bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor leads the Department’s LGBT Task Force which mobilizes the agency to respond swiftly to LGBT abuses abroad and spearheads Department implementation of the President’s call to action.

Earlier this week, Ambassador Susan Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, spoke at our Global Chiefs of Mission Conference and asked our representatives abroad to be “a clarion voice” for LGBT equality. And I want to acknowledge the critically important leadership demonstrated by our U.S. Ambassadors – five of whom are openly gay, and one of whom is particularly well known to many of you. As the openly gay Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Wally Brewster has been a passionate advocate for human rights, even in the face of great odds: a skill he likely developed and sharpened as an HRC Board Member. Our openly gay Ambassadors to Australia, Spain, Denmark, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, have also been champions for equality. And I’m proud to count amongst our diplomatic ranks a number of staunch allies to the LGBT community, including the newly returned Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul to our Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi.

Last year we began meeting quarterly with nearly 15 embassies in Washington to discuss country-specific strategies and developments at the United Nations and other multilateral fora. Our posts abroad have increased their reporting on LGBT developments and several of our embassies, including Embassies Managua and San Salvador, have developed their own internal coordinating mechanisms to ensure a holistic approach to LGBT engagement. Other embassies convene government and civil society stakeholders, bringing them around the same table, sometimes for the first time, to discuss LGBT issues.

The U.S. government works on these issues in close partnership with civil society organizations, including an eight member NGO consortium representing five regions. We also recognize that the specific actions we take must be tailored to the country context. To that end, we strive to support the efforts and seek the counsel of local civil society, whose work is vital to ensuring sustainable results.

One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal is the Global Equality Fund. Launched in December 2011, the Fund supports civil society organizations in their efforts to protect and advance the human rights of LGBT persons worldwide. Since the Fund’s launch, and with the support of 13 like-minded governments, corporations and foundations and USAID, we have provided more than $7.8 million dollars in over 50 countries to support groups on the ground as they protect human rights defenders, challenge discriminatory legislation, undertake advocacy and media campaigns and document human rights violations that target LGBT persons. Over the last year, we have doubled the number of government partners in Global Equality Fund, and, as a result, we are able to double the amount of funding available for programs.

We know that through the Fund, our work is having an impact in remote corners around the world. For example, in Southeast Asia, we are working to expand acceptance and tolerance for LGBT persons by supporting civil society organizations to establish new PFLAG groups. As you well know, PFLAG groups here in the U.S. have played a critical role in fostering more tolerant environments for LGBT persons – and we’re excited to be able to support that model overseas. In one country alone, we supported and strengthened over 25 PFLAG groups. In the same region, we are also furthering public education on the human rights of LGBT persons through radio and video broadcasts. I’m excited to note that one video developed by a civil society organization has been watched over 20,000 times, and the radio program set record numbers for listening, including in rural areas. And globally, we continue to ensure advocates working in the most challenging and dangerous environments have the tools they need to conduct their work safely and securely.

In the Western Hemisphere, through their public diplomacy and outreach efforts, embassies have taken the initiative to produce videos for the “It Gets Better” campaign, host leaders from the Human Rights Campaign to share best practices, and convene multinational corporations and civil society activists to discuss corporate policies that promote workplace diversity including respect for LGBT employees.

In a perfect world, every country would have its own version of HRC; an organization that builds grassroots support and advocates for change. I was excited to see in November the launch of HRC’s Global Engagement Program, and I know that the organizations you partner with abroad will benefit from your expertise and guidance.

From our own experience here in the United States, we are under no illusion that our efforts and the efforts of civil society will be easy or that progress will be linear. But we believe the challenges before us are not insurmountable, and rapid progress is possible as we have seen here in the United States.

From Moscow to Abuja, governments propose and at times succeed in passing laws with a discriminatory effect. Time will surely show that the authors of those laws were simply on the wrong side of history. But we can’t wait for history. The work must be done now.

We need more Belize Cities, where brave civil society organizations persevere in the face of negative societal attitudes, threats, and harassment.

And from Kingston to Kampala, we at the Department of State will continue to promote the universality of human rights and support those organizations that advocate for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

I encourage you to read our reports and as you look beyond our borders, share your experiences, knowledge, and resources with other activists who face extreme challenges and overt hostility. Through partnership and perseverance, we will work together to achieve universal respect for human rights. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Thank you.