In its waning days in December of 2008, the Bush administration refused to sign a United Nations declaration demanding the universal decriminalization of homosexuality the world over. Yesterday, in a key reversal of Bush administration policy, the United States formally endorsed the UN statement, joining all of its western allies in support of a fundamental human rights policy.
The UN statement declares that human rights violations based on homophobia run counter to the organization's universal declaration of human rights. Introduced by France and supported by 66 countries, largely from Europe and Latin America, the measure was met with broad approval when presented to the UN on December 19, 2008. Read aloud by Ambassador Jorge Argüello of Argentina, this was the first gay rights statement read out to the entire General Assembly itself. Still, at the time that the measure was introduced, Rama Yade, the French state secretary for human rights, pointed out that homosexuality was illegal in almost 80 countries, with the penalty of death a possibility in six. The original opponents of the measure were: Russia, China, the Roman Catholic Church (Vatican City is a country), member states of the Islamic Conference—and the United States.
The Bush administration justified its refusal to sign with a statement that, while it supported a human rights agenda, the UN declaration would potentially cause legal problems for the individual states, some of which have laws allowing landlords and employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation. "We are opposed to any discrimination, legally or politically," said Alejandro D. Wolff, the US's deputy permanent representative to the UN at the time, "but the nature of our federal system prevents us from undertaking commitments and engagements where federal authorities don't have jurisdiction." For many, this approach obliquely brought into view the US's struggles over gay marriage, and the laws of many individual states that ban same-sex unions. At the very least, it was viewed in a cynical light by many gay activists. "The administration is trying to come up with Christmas presents for the religious right so it will be remembered," Scott Long, a director at Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times in December.
Well, what a difference a few months makes. "The United States supports the UN's statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity and is pleased to join the other 66 UN member states who have declared their support of the statement," said state department spokesman Robert Wood to reporters on Wednesday. "The United States is an outspoken defender of human rights and critic of human rights abuses around the world. As such, we join with other supporters of this statement, and we will continue to remind countries of the importance of respecting the human rights of all people in all appropriate international fora." Wood went on that a careful review of the legal situation by the Obama administration had concluded that "supporting this statement commits us to no legal obligations."
The reaction from gay advocacy groups has been immediate. "The administration's leadership on this issue will be a powerful rebuke of an earlier Bush administration position that sought to deny the universal application of human rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals," said Mark Bromley, who chairs the Council for Global Equality. LIkewise, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task force, says that, "This is long past overdue and we are encouraged by the signal it sends that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will now be considered human rights." For many in the gay community, the willingness of the United States to join its allies in the world community on an issue of basic rights is a sign that policy towards the LGBT community within the US may also be ready to change for the better. Not a moment too soon.