Briefing on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Resolution at UN Human Rights Council
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
OPERATOR: Welcome, everyone, and thank you for standing by. At this time, I’d like to inform all participants that your lines are in a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session of today’s conference call. If you would like to ask questions, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. To withdraw your request, you may press *2. Today’s call is being recorded, and I will now turn it over to our first speaker, Mr. Mark Toner. Thank you. You may begin.
MR. TONER: Good morning, and thanks to everyone for joining us on such relatively short notice. As you know, this morning, at least our time, but earlier today, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the first ever UN resolution on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. And here to talk to us today about this historic resolution, we have our Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Eileen Donahoe as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Suzanne Nossel, and our Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dan Baer.
Without further ado, I’ll hand it off to Ambassador Donahoe just to make some brief remarks, and I believe that Suzanne and Dan will also chime in before we take your questions. So over to you, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: Thank you very much. I just wanted to underscore how thrilled we are and the entire U.S. team at the Human Rights Council as well as the international community here that this historic resolution has passed the Human Rights Council. It is the first internationally recognized form of protection for lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual people, and it is based on a very simple and elegant idea that all individuals deserve universal rights. And we spend all of our time at the Council protecting the universality of human rights, and this is the first time we’ve been able to explicitly extend that protection to LGBT people and with the support of the international community.
I just want to quickly mention two other aspects of this resolution. First of all, it includes an expression of grave concern about acts of violence and discrimination that are committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And from our vantage point, that was an essential element because there are horrific acts of violence and discrimination that are committed against LGBT people around the world in many places, and sexual orientation is even criminalized in many places. So the extent of support we got for expressing this idea that people deserve to be protected regardless of who they are and who they love and how they want to live their lives was really essential.
Second, the operational provision of the resolution instructs the high commissioner for human rights to document discriminatory laws and practices that take place around the world, and the acts of violence that have taken place against individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And we’ve asked her to come back and report to the Council, and we hope this is just the beginning of a movement within the international community, within the UN, and at the Human Rights Council where we can work together to further promote and protect the human rights of LGBT people.
So I will leave it there and let Suzanne and Dan add their perspectives.
MS. NOSSEL: Thanks, Eileen. I’ll start, then I’ll kick it over to Dan. This is really a paradigmatic example of using the UN system to advance one of President Obama’s top policy priorities. We’ve been able to deliver on broad international support behind an agenda that we have set as a key goal for this Administration.
This resolution, I think, will be a lifeline to those struggling for their rights around the world who now know that they have the weight of the United Nations behind them, that they’re not alone, that they can turn to the international system for protection. When they’re abused, when they’re subject to violence, they can reach out and the Human Rights Council and the high commissioner for human rights are there to support them.
And it really – just a third point – it expands the frontier of human rights protection in a new direction, and it’s a direction that not all accept. And it was a hotly fought resolution; you could see that from the voted result. But I think getting a majority on – particularly on the South African-led resolution really is a crucial step that will be irreversible. Gay rights have taken their place under the global human rights agenda. Gay rights have arrived at the United Nations as of today.
Over to you, Dan.
MR. BAER: Sure. I think Ambassador Donahoe and Suzanne have covered it pretty well. I would just echo Suzanne that this is – places in the broader context of Administration policy. Both the President and Secretary Clinton have made LGBT human rights a priority. Secretary Clinton gave a speech last year in which she said gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights. She has sent out a cable to all ambassadors instructing them that LGBT human rights are part of our comprehensive human rights policy. And within the context of the UN system, there has been a series of events leading up to today’s resolution which was, as Suzanne indicated, led by South Africa, but Ambassador Donahoe’s team here put together a side event here last September on LGBT human rights and violence against LGBT people.
There was a statement – well, actually in New York in December. We led an effort to reinsert sexual orientation and gender identity into a resolution at the UN, where it had been removed, about extrajudicial killings. Then in March, there was this joint statement signed by 85 countries, which the U.S. team here did a great job of leading, and now today, the first ever resolution. And so I think this resolution comes at a time where the U.S. has ramped up our engagement on this issue across the board, and not only in the context of international organizations, but also at our embassies and posts around the world.
MR. TONER: Great. Thank you very much, Dan. We’re ready for questions now. Just a reminder of the ground rules, this is an on the record briefing. So with that, we’ll open it up to your questions.
Operator? Bridgette? Thanks.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Thanks. Once again, at this time if there are questions or comments, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. To withdraw your request, you may press *2. And once again, it is *1 on your touchtone phones if you have any questions or comments. And we’ll wait a moment to see if we have any responses.
All right. Our first response is from Jim Mannion of AFP. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. I guess my question is: What are the practical implications of this resolution, particularly in countries where, as you all pointed out, that – where homosexuality is criminalized?
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: I’m going to start – I’m going to let Dan and Suzanne talk about in-country, but I want to make one preliminary comment about the practical impact in the Human Rights Council and in conversations in the international community, which is simply that it is now on the map as a legitimate topic for those concerned about human rights to be raising and reaffirming internationally. And we think this is a game changer in terms of changing the culture in the – at least at the Human Rights Council, on the topic of protections for LGBT people.
Prior to today, it was almost a taboo topic. It was so volatile, there was so much animosity around this topic, and frankly, we – very recently, we didn’t expect that we would be able to see this kind of a result. And yet because of some leadership from partners around the world and widespread support from Latin American countries in particular and European countries and then particularly the South Africans coming together and taking a risk, the conversation has been changed. And so on a – to your point about what’s the practical impact, I think this is a first step in changing the culture, at least the international and diplomatic culture, on this topic as something that is essential to our work. It’s part of our responsibilities.
And I’ll let Dan and Suzanne talk about the effects actually on the ground.
MS. NOSSEL: I mean, just a couple thoughts. One, you won’t see a sea change overnight. It’s not like that by passing this resolution, all of a sudden dramatically, all the repressive laws and practices around the world are going to change and be abolished. That won’t happen. But this does raise the political price of repression and discrimination and violence. It puts a spotlight under it. It sends a message that the international community rejects it, that governments that condone and pursue those policies are outliers, that they’re at odds with an international norm.
It also puts in place reporting so that activists and victims of abuses have a place to turn, they’re not alone, they can contact the High Commissioner and ensure that what they’re undergoing sees the light of day, that people know about it, that it’s – the behavior is called out. And I think, as Ambassador Donahoe said, it’s really a beginning. It’s a beginning of an international norm that will take hold gradually, and if you look at the human rights provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they didn’t all take hold overnight, but by putting them down definitively in an internationally-backed document, you set an irreversible process in motion.
QUESTION: If I could follow up: Is it binding in any way? Because I noticed that there were an awful lot of countries that voted against this.
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: Well, it’s not binding except to the extent it is the beginning of the establishment of a norm. And so what it does is, as I think Susanne said, it extends the existing principle of universality specifically to LGBT people. So it’s based on something that is widely accepted, it is the core premise of the human rights community and the human rights foundation within the UN, which is that universal – human rights are universal, they are – all individuals are endowed with fundamental human rights. We have now simply extended the concept of that universality to include LGBT people. And so it’s more that it is a reinforcement that this norm is, in fact, truly universal, and that in people’s consciousness and in government practice, it must be applied to LGBT people along with everyone else. And so in that sense, it’s – it has a lot of force because it affirms the extension of the existing, widely accepted universality to the group of people, LGBT people.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. TONER: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: Next question is from Bill Varner, Bloomberg News. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I just want to be clear about one thing. The resolution, the text of which I have not seen, expresses grave concern but does not explicitly condemn. Is that correct?
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: Well, the way I would put it, it’s not that it doesn’t condemn. The operative paragraphs are action-oriented. So it is – what will happen because of this is that the high commissioner will go out and document discriminatory laws and practices and – that inspire violence or past acts of violence against LGBT people around the world, and then come back and report to us and begin the conversations in the council so that we can (inaudible) practices around the world. So that’s the operational aspect of it. And we have instituted a study to document these laws and practices that we want to change and begin the conversation here to encourage that.
But the essence of the – so the spirit, the animating spirit of it, is, in effect, condemnation because of grave concern of – that acts of violence and discrimination are perpetrated against LGBT people. So it’s the same animating idea that that is wrong and that this resolution asserts that violence and discrimination against LGBT people is not acceptable for the international community.
QUESTION: Understood, but just so I’m clear, the only – the – sort of the biggest – the most explicit view of these acts is an expression of grave concern. That’s sort of the position about these acts?
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: Correct.
QUESTION: Not anything beyond that in terms of – okay, I just wanted to make sure I understood. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: Mm-hmm.
MR. TONER: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Natasha Fozgovaya of Haaretz. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. I was just wondering to what extent the U.S. Administration can take credit for promoting these undeniably positive changes at the Human Rights Council?
MS. NOSSEL: Yeah, I think Dan said it well when he went through the steps that we’ve taken over time to put this issue on the agenda and work with others to build support, and particularly the role that we played in March in mobilizing 85 countries behind this far-reaching and much more sweeping statement on LGBT rights that you may want to take a look at to Bill’s question in terms of stronger language and condemnation; there was very broad support for that.
But it was very important that South Africa took the lead here. I mean, as many of you know, the – some of the practices about which we’re most concerned – violence, discriminatory laws, laws that can legitimize repression – are in place in Africa. And so for an African country to step forward and lead on this resolution was quite significant, and actually makes it, I think, in a sense, more of – an even stronger message of global unity around this.
MR. TONER: All right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. I’m currently not showing any other questions, but as a reminder to all parties on the phone lines, if you have questions or comments, please press *1 on your touchtone phones at this time. Again, it is *1 on your touchtone phone if you have any questions or comments. And we’ll wait another moment here to see if you have any responses.
All right, we have a response from Richard Solash of Radio Free Europe. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, everyone. Thank you for doing this conference call. I just wanted to get a statement from one of you as to what the United States would say to countries like Russia, Pakistan, many African nations that opposed this. What is the U.S. statement for those countries on your – well, what is your position to their opposition?
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: I feel like we should let Dan do that. I want to say one line, is they’re behind the curve on this issue, but I’ll let Dan elaborate.
MR. BAER: I guess I think that one of the purposes of the Human Rights Council, obviously, is to foster an international conversation about human rights and to shine a spotlight on urgent human rights issues, both in particular places and particular thematic issues around the world. And I agree with Eileen; I think that our message would be that universal human rights apply to everyone, and that the state – that today’s resolution is not meant as a shot in an argument; it’s meant as an affirmation of a universal principle that we consider to be there in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that the categories that are enumerated in the Universal Declaration were not intended to be comprehensive and that no distinction, such as the one covered in the resolution today, would be an excuse for anyone to deny any individual human rights.
And I think that over time, we have seen progressively that it has taken the international community time to recognize the fact that all individuals deserve human rights. For a long time, women were excluded, for a long time people of different races or religious or ethnic groups were excluded. And each time that we’ve – that the international community has expanded the circle of who counts as human, there have been people who have disagreed, and each time, as time has progressed, those disagreements have seemed less and less convincing. And so we would expect that over time, that will be the case with this as well.
QUESTION: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR DONAHOE: Can I just add one thought that occurred to me in terms of getting across a little bit about the dynamic at the council and the resistance to this idea? I think it’s often expressed as an effort of, let’s say, Western countries to impose their values on more traditional cultures or different cultures. And I think what we’re seeing is that that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on here. And our perspective is that these are core fundamental, traditional human rights. They are universal. They already exist. It’s not a matter of imposing these values on anyone. They exist and they – every individual embodies those rights. And this is simply reaffirming that regardless of one’s sexual orientation or identity, people all are endowed with these rights.
And I think that the conflicting narrative we have is between the idea that these are just core human rights for all individuals, that we are reasserting in a way that makes it obvious that they’re applicable to LGBT people versus this idea that I think is mistaken and will shown – be shown relatively soon to be an outdated idea that this is an imposition of Western values. I think that idea is losing steam, and I think more and more countries and people around the world are coming to see that these really are just basic universal human rights.
MR. TONER: All right. Thank you. We have time, I think, for just one more question.
OPERATOR: I have no further questions in the phone queue.
MR. TONER: Perfect. All right, then. Well, thanks so much for everybody joining us from the journalist side today as well as our interlocutors joining us both from Geneva and here in Washington. We appreciate the participation, and everyone have a great day. Thank you all.
OPERATOR: I thank you all for your participation. That concludes today’s conference. You may now disconnect. Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thank you.