Briefing by Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry
MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Today I have a special guest here with me in the briefing room, special presenter, Mr. Randy Berry, who I think many of you know is our Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. Mr. Berry has been with us here at Foggy Bottom in that capacity now for a year, and he is going to talk for a little bit about some of the accomplishments of his office and his team around the world over the course of that year and the things that they’re working on. Then he will take a few questions. I’ll moderate those, as we have in the past. I’ll call on you. Please, because he’s not a regular up here at the podium, please identify yourself and who you’re with before you ask your question, and so that we can keep it moving, if you could limit the follow-ups that would be very, very helpful.
So with that, Mr. Berry.
MR BERRY: Thank you. Well, thank you, John, for sharing the podium with me today, and good afternoon to all of you. It’s been just a little over a year ago that the Secretary announced the creation of a new position here at the State Department: the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. And this marked a first – not only a first for the U.S. Government, but really a first for any government in any part of the world. And the position’s formation really signified two key realities: First, that the persecution and marginalization of LGBTI persons is a longstanding and deep-seated problem in so many parts of the world. And second, as the Secretary said the day he swore me in a year ago in the Ben Franklin Room here in the building, the United States remains unwavering in our commitment to advance the human rights of all human beings, including LGBTI persons. It’s not just because it’s a moral necessity, which it is, but also because it’s a strategic imperative for the United States.
So I was appointed to this position last February but I didn’t begin work until April, and so what I’d like to do here very briefly is to tell you more or less what I’ve been up to this first year, talk a little bit about the progress I think we’ve made, priorities that we’ve set, and where we’re going to be focused moving forward.
So from day one, one of my primary goals was to build bridges and to continue to strengthen partnerships, to engage with our detractors, and to shine a spotlight on this key set of issues. And so in the last 12 months I have traveled to 42 countries around the world: Jamaica, Turkey, Uganda, Indonesia, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Holy See, Israel – don’t worry, I won’t name them all – but a few others. That’s been an extraordinary privilege and I’ve had the chance to meet with courageous activists who have braved threats of violence and imprisonment to improve the lives and rights of their brothers and sisters. I had frank conversations with foreign government officials, including at the highest levels, about discriminatory legislation, targeting the community, and the stigma that members of this community endure. I had the chance to sit alongside faith-based leaders in churches and in mosques and across from business leaders in board rooms and in conference centers.
It’s been an extraordinary year, and here’s what I found out: that there is at once an emerging consensus worldwide that LGBTI persons should enjoy the same human rights as everyone else, and yet, there remain persistent levels of violence and discrimination, particularly targeting transgender individuals. On the positive side, Latin American governments have led the most recent UN human rights resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. Vietnam revised its civil code to make it easier for transgender persons to alter their legal identity. Nepal made history for its new constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity – the first country in Asia to take that step. Mozambique decriminalized consensual adult same-sex relations, and courts in Botswana affirmed the right of an LGBT association to register as a formal organization.
Yet, despite these positive developments, we live in a world where nearly 80 countries still criminalize LGBTI conduct or relations. We live in a world where many governments use LGBTI issues as a political wedge to bolster their own positions. Nigeria and Russia, for example, recently passed draconian laws to further undermine the human rights of all people, including LGBTI persons, as they place restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of expression and association. As documented in last week’s human rights report, many governments are also cracking down on civil society actors, which has a particularly devastating impact on LGBTI-oriented civil society groups. In sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, lesbians and transgender persons face incredibly high rates of violence and rape.
Given this ongoing violence and discrimination, it’s no surprise that LGBTI individuals are fleeing their homes and their countries to avoid imprisonment, harassment, persecution, and at times, an almost certain death, as is the case in places under ISIS control.
In that context, here’s how we are aiming to address these challenges looking forward. Diplomatically, we will work closely – continue to work closely with the governments around the world that are stepping up to support the rights of LGBTI individuals. We have strengthened and supported efforts of the LGBTI Core Group in New York, a group of governments building support within the United Nations working for the inclusion of LGBTI individuals with steps like the appointment of special rapporteurs and independent experts. Programmatically, we continue to grow with the Global Equality Fund, an initiative launched by Secretary Clinton to support civil society organizations to advance the human rights of LGBTI persons. Argentina recently became the twelfth partner government to join, and we expect that other governments, including from Europe and Asia, to soon join. The U.S. has spent $18 million in U.S. Government funding, which we’ve leveraged with an additional 12 million from our 20 like-minded government, corporate, and foundation partners.
Lastly, this year has also been about cementing our relationships with diverse allies outside of government like communities of faith and leaders in the business sector to advance messages of inclusion, diversity, nonviolence, and tolerance for all. For example, following the Pope’s visit to the United States, I traveled to Rome and met at the Holy See Secretariat of State in the Vatican in November. We have also invested considerable time with the business community, including with global leaders such as Deloitte and IBM, who – recognizing that businesses have a unique role to advise governments and seek change.
Our task moving forward will be to use the same momentum and goodwill of so many to overcome the persisting challenges. In the next year, we’re going to be focusing on three priority areas with the hope of achieving greater impact. First, we’re going to redouble our efforts to combat violence against LGBTI persons, and again, remembering the acute experiences in discrimination and violence faced particularly by the transgender community in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, even here at home. We will work with the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other agencies to leverage opportunities to reduce and prevent violence, share best practices and challenges, and provide technical resources where we can.
Secondly, we will work to institutionalize our relationship with business with the goal of building a standing forum where businesses and governments can work together to advance values of nondiscrimination and to build more inclusive societies. We hope that this forum will serve as a platform for business to build on the leadership that they’ve already shown, to share their own experiences and challenges, their opportunities for engagement, and to see how we can work together to support civil society.
And finally, we’ll work to strengthen the global consensus and multilateral coalitions in support of the human rights of LGBTI persons with the goal of supporting leadership, particularly from the Global South, to affirm that LGBT rights are human rights and vice versa. We will support the special rapporteur position established by the Organization of American States. We will support the establishment of a similar position within the UN human rights system that would help member-states focus on how to stem violence against LGBTI citizens.
And in closing, I want to emphasize that we in the United States are one player in a truly global movement. We recognize that our own efforts must be guided by the work of civil society organizations that push for social change in their own context. We know from our own experience that change can take time, that we often can move one step forward and one step back. But I am confident that our collective efforts will help support a world where everyone is afforded the dignity, the freedom, and the equality that they rightfully deserve no matter who they are or who they love.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
MR KIRBY: Okay. Said, we’ll start with you today.
QUESTION: Thank you. Yes, sir. My name is Said Arikat. I am from the Palestinian newspaper Al Qudsdaily newspaper. Sir, you talked about that you are but one in a global movement. But in fact, you do exert a great deal of leverage and especially among your allies and especially in the Middle East where, in fact, the Secretary of State is in Egypt today; where the President will be meeting a group of the GCC leaders tomorrow in Riyadh; where, in fact, discrimination against the LGBTI community is quite open. And what are you doing in terms of utilizing that leverage, and in fact in the Palestinian Authority area, where you are – give them a great deal of funds and so on, what are you doing in terms of utilizing that leverage to ensure that these practices do not go on forever?
MR BERRY: Well, one of our priorities as we have shaped out this policy is to make sure that we’re engaging on a truly global scale. So the policy of – particularly I’m looking at these twin issues of violence and discrimination, which are a fundamentally important concern for us, is a consistent talking point regardless of whether we’re talking with those allies in northern Europe or South America, who have actually been ahead of the United States in these innovations, or whether we have those conversations in Kampala or elsewhere.
What I can say is that our approach has been, in a global sense, to make sure that we are focusing not on an issue of special rights, but as a core function of our human rights – overall human rights policy. So we engage on LGBTI human rights in the same context that we engage in our human rights portfolio more broadly. We acknowledge where we have concerns and register those through the Human Rights Report that was released just a couple of weeks ago. And we make sure that we are engaging on a consistent basis on that regard.
MR KIRBY: Nike.
QUESTION: Yes, Nike Ching with Voice of America. Thank you for coming here. When you are speaking here and when you are promoting the equal rights for LGBTI community overseas, there is also debate at home on – such as the so-called bathroom bills in North Carolina. How do you respond to questions or even criticisms when you are promoting the rights overseas? Does that make your job easier or harder? Thank you.
MR BERRY: In fact, I think that we can turn that domestic debate that we have into an ability to engage in a very transparent and honest way about how difficult change often can seem. When I’m traveling, I get questions a lot about the ongoing debate as it shapes up domestically here in the United States. I think that charges of being hypocritical would only, I think, pose a problem for us if – is if, in some way, we tended to downplay those issues or we wanted to ignore that they exist.
I think because we have had our own rather complicated and difficult journey, which is continuing, on LGBTI acceptance here at home, I think that makes us a perfect partner for discussion overseas. Because when we say that we know what sort of path gradual change can take, we say that because we’ve walked that path. And I think that actually makes us a very valued interlocutor on some of the key components of what it means to really see progress for LGBTI citizens.
MR KIRBY: Michael.
QUESTION: Michael Lavers from the Washington Blade. Nice to see you again here in Washington. I wanted to ask you about specific policy announcements, because this is something that I hear from a lot of my contacts around the world, Latin America most notably. What are your thoughts on using things specifically such as sanctions or travel bans against officials who commit LGBTI rights abuses and also governments that support them? Are you – what are your thoughts on that?
MR BERRY: Well, my goal in the engagement that we’ve crafted over this past year has been predicated on avoiding those kinds of outcomes, that I believe that with the right kind of constructive, early intervention and a dialogue that happens between countries in the – as part of the regular diplomatic process, that we can avert many of those crises points simply by having – making sure that we’re sharing our views and our desires early on.
I believe that we have much greater possibility of seeing constructive, productive results from members of civil society when we don’t have to rely on those types of levers. I think that we have been reasonably successful, I think, this first year in engaging in those kinds of conversations in some pretty difficult places to avoid worst – worst outcome. So I would never rule out – I think we need to look at all of the tools in our toolkit when we really need to push for the rights of others in some of these contexts, but my great hope is that we don’t get to that point in the first place.
MR KIRBY: We’ll take just a couple more. Arshad.
QUESTION: Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. I’m not certain of the answer to this question. I just tried to find out if in the annual Human Rights Report – the country reports releases – if there is any kind of a subsection or appendix that describes the status of LGBTI rights around the world. I didn’t see one. If there is not one, have you considered doing such a separate section either of that report or a separate report so that people interested in this issue can see not just what’s happening in individual countries, but actually looking at the trends and how they improve or deteriorate over time?
MR BERRY: Indeed, as part of the Human Rights Report, there is a dedicated section that looks at LGBTI rights. So – and we think that while we’ve made some good strides here, we’re constantly looking at ways in which we can improve the content of that report, to make sure that we’re verifying facts with civil society organizations on the ground. And in fact, just prior to the release of this year’s report, we went through some comprehensive training in partnership with civil – with our civil society partners here, including the Council for Global Equality, on making sure that all of our Human Rights Report editors are comfortable with the vocabulary, the language, and the types of questions to ask. So I think that that will be – that will increasingly become more successful in giving as accurate a depiction of the status of LGBTI citizens in every country.
MR KIRBY: Ros.
QUESTION: Hi. Rosiland Jordan with Al-Jazeera English. My colleague from the VOA raised the question about activities happening here in the U.S. that may make people question the country’s commitment to full access and equal treatment. But what do you do when you are visiting countries in the Global South, particularly in East Africa – Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania – where evangelical Christians from the U.S. have gone in and worked with local ministers to help foment anti-LGBTI legislation? How do you counter that as a government official?
MR BERRY: Yeah, well, first of all, we have a very active and open conversation about the realities of all of the elements that make up a country’s national discourse on this issue. Obviously, one of the key components, one of the most important, essential values in America is freedom of religion and faith. But I think far too often in many of these places – and including places here at home – there is a narrative that develops that seems to put an embrace of LGBTI human rights on a collision course with religion. And I actually think that’s a rather unfortunate evolution. I know that it occurs. But we’re out there, we want to engage to make sure we’re communicating very clearly that our advocacy on behalf of the LGBTI community in any country is not inherently critical of any community of faith, that our advocacy and our work is predicated on the fact that despite the fact that you hear, I think, a great deal of the noise that is generated from some groups, the vast majority of communities of faith, in fact, are out there equally working for more progressive, more embracing stances as well. I think that’s also occurring in the countries that you’ve referenced. And one thing that I am focused on is working with those communities of faith to broaden out the discussion, to show that it is more than it is currently, I think, characterized as.
I co-chair a sub-working group under Shaun Casey’s office here at the State Department. I co-chair that with Ruth Messinger, who’s the chairperson of the American Jewish World Service. And that group exists solely to see how we can engage with progressive communities of faith, how we can partner and learn from them, and then how we can introduce that dialogue and promote that dialogue, to make sure that we’re seeing a full picture – which, ultimately, I believe is that the vast majority of communities of faith in fact want a more inclusive world; they want a more – an order that respects the human rights of all persons. Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Okay. Last question today.
QUESTION: Thank you. Lalit Jha from PTI, Press Trust of India. I hope you are following the debates going on in India about LGBT community and the court cases there. What is your impression about the status of LG community in India?
MR BERRY: Well, I haven’t had a chance to travel to India yet. But I would characterize from the reports we received from – not just from India, but from the region, is that the global progression that we see is a very, very – is very uniform in some ways, that I believe that there is a more open public dialogue. We of course are watching the outcome of the court case with great interest. And we remain in contact with civil society groups and the government to share our views of our global policy on LGBTI rights.
But I think one thing that’s interesting is of the countries that I visited over this first year, there isn’t a single one that I would single out as saying that they are somehow either immune from what I believe is truly a global movement. That’s not because we’re doing anything particularly to make it so. I think it’s happening quite organically. Nor do I think there is any place that necessarily it’s impossible to have a conversation on these grounds. I think it can be delicate. I think we have to proceed with great care and make sure that oftentimes that we are making sure that we are conducting our diplomacy with our counterparts in government and not necessarily through the press as an opening salvo. But I think that those conversations are entirely possible. I think they carry the capacity of being fundamentally productive, as long as we engage in a careful and reasoned way; that I really think that there is great value in a constructive conversation that talks about issues of basic humanity, freedom from discrimination and violence. I think that’s a very hard proposition to argue with in almost any country.
QUESTION: Are you having conversation with the Indian Government on this issue?
MR BERRY: Well, our diplomatic mission in India certainly does engage with the government and with civil society groups there. I would also say that of every other U.S. embassy worldwide, that I think one of the really pleasing innovations that I’ve had the chance to see is – I’ve been around for 23 years in this business, and it’s really been very gratifying to me to be able to spearhead a policy that has such incredible uptake. From the Secretary on down in this building, we’ve had extraordinary support, and we’re getting really super leadership from our chiefs of mission in the field. So it’s been a real pleasure to travel around and see that – to see that evolution.
MR KIRBY: On that note, we’re going to wrap it up. We’ll get ready for the regular briefing. Thank you very much; appreciate you coming in, sir.