In a speech to mark the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focussed on “the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today.” She was referring to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT).
“Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm,” she said, calling on all nations to pay more attention to this matter.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner expanded on the topic in a press interview with a group of foreign journalists in the first week of June. The US effort on this front will have three aspects to it, he said.
- Diplomatic engagement. The US will engage with governments, report on violations and reach out to LGBT communities in other countries.
- Public diplomacy. The US will raise the profile of the issue, use media and the public space to help educate a broader public.
- Provide training, protection and support to those working on LGBT issues. A fund has been set up for this.
He stressed that the focus on LGBT rights is not a whole new area of work. It is part of the overall commitment that US has to human rights. “We already work on issues relating to rule of law, transparency, accountability . . . and the extent to which governments protect vulnerable groups.”
Posner acknowledges however that “there are parts of the world in which LGBT rights as human rights – they are not yet there.”
A question was asked: Is this a new form of colonialism? Of cultural imperialism?
Dan Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary (Democracy, Human Rights and Labor) replied: “This set of questions speaks to the need for free expression.” His point was that the belief that somehow homosexuality and its acceptability are Western concepts and ones which the West seeks to impose on the rest of the world, is completely unfounded. Every population has a homosexual minority. The belief that it is alien, and that respect and acceptance are alien, persists only because of misinformation and the controls (censorship) over rebuttal.
Continuing, he said: “Nowhere in the world is there any study that shows that people can be recruited to be gay.” Unusually for a diplomat, he did not mince words: “It is hogwash. It’s not true and it’s something people should know.”
He also pointed out that laws criminalising homosexual behaviour are relics of colonialism, not the reverse. “The anti-colonial agenda should be to remove them.”
A related question that was asked was: Would it be interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations?
Baer provided a more diplomatic answer this time, speaking of empowering local civil society as the primary route. “Civil society has to learn to adjust and push for things,” he said.
He had earlier mentioned that for the US to raise this subject was not as contentious as the above question might suggest. Although he has encountered governments from whom he had “the perception that discussing protecting LGBT people is off the table,” on no occasion is the reception so hostile that he wouldn’t have wanted to raise the topic.
In any case, “a great number of Americans of all political stripes take great pride in our founding documents and rights” – his way of pointing out that this new focus of American policy has broad support.
“As you look back in history, at every moment, there’s a group whose struggle speaks to others on the question of fairness. And [the LGBT issue] is now recognised as a debate over fairness. That part is not new.”
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Personally, I would have taken a stronger position. As I told a journalist from an African state, as a human being and a gay person, I have an interest in humans, particularly gay ones, in whichever country he or she lives. My humanity, my responsibility as a fellow human being does not stop at the water’s edge of Singapore. If he or she is being persecuted, I cannot remain unconcerned. And by the same token, I don’t expect Americans to be remain unconcerned about the plight of fellow human beings in other countries.
What I don’t have, as an individual, is any power to help another human being so distant from me. And this is where I expect my government, as my representative, to do what I alone cannot do. My government is there to represent my desire to help. Likewise, it is entirely understandable that the US government, acting for the moral impulses of its own citizens, acts similarly.
As Tobias Wolff, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said on a separate occasion, “It’s a mistake to say that the US has an option not to be involved.”
The funny thing is that this perspective may sound totally novel to some people from the more homophobic countries, but there’s a reason for it, which is the total neglect of a simple fact: that in every country, there are LGBT people. If one does not even bear in mind that one’s domestic population includes LGBT persons, but rather assumes that everyone is straight, then the idea that I have a shared humanity with anyone in such a country must be, well, mind-blowing.
My interest in your country then becomes one of “interference”, or as Dan Baer grasped, that of recruiting Africans to becoming gay. No, some Africans are already gay, and some of us outside of Africa feel compelled to help.
If that is interference, Vive l’interference!
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What if President Obama is not reelected this November? Would these policies be reversed?
As public servants and diplomats, neither Michael Posner nor Dan Baer could take this question on directly. However, Posner pointed out that “There is a clear momentum in the direction of tolerance of diversity and sexual preference.”
Even the Log Cabin Republicans, in a separate meeting, argued that Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage is something that is “relatively impossible” for a future government – and they would want a future Republican government – “to take a step backward from.”
However, Baer did mention in the course of his interview that currently, “the priorities [of US foreign policy] are decriminalisation and the protection against violence and abuse. There does not need to be a consensus about same-sex marriage.
“It is important to recognise the difference in degree,” he stressed.
The bottom line, according to him, is that “universal human rights only makes sense if everybody is protected. That truth is not evolving; we are not requesting that people respect a new truth.”
What the US is putting forward is the issue of “how you would expand the circle as who counts as human.”