Diplomatic Disconnect

BY James Kirchick

July 12 2010 3:00 AM ET

Founded on the lofty principles of preventing war and ensuring human rights for all, the United Nations has consistently fallen wide of the mark. Rather than work to secure these principles, the U.N. spends most of its time passing florid resolutions that pay lip service to them. For instance, the Obama administration earned a great deal of credit from gay rights groups early last year when it decided to endorse a U.N. General Assembly resolution opposing national laws criminalizing homosexuality. This was all well and good—and a welcome departure from the policy of the previous administration, which had opposed the measure. But what effect will a toothless document instructing countries not to criminalize same-sex relations have on Saudi Arabia (which beheads gay people), Iran (which hangs them from cranes), or Zimbabwe (where gays are called “lower than dogs and pigs” by President Robert Mugabe)? Passing a feel-good resolution decrying such activity does little more than salve the consciences of Western human rights activists and—by instilling such complacency—may actually harm, not help, those people most in need.

But the problem with the U.N. runs deeper than mere ineffectiveness; it is more often than not an actively pernicious force in world politics. Rather than address real human rights abuses, the U.N. Human Rights Council spends most of its time attacking the tiny state of Israel. Indeed, its predecessor body, the Commission on Human Rights, was eventually dissolved due to criticism from Western democracies regarding its nonexistent membership requirements (which permitted the likes of Libya, Zim­babwe, and Vietnam—all systematic abusers of human rights—to sit in judgment of other countries). These problems with the U.N. are due to its nature, composed as it is of the world’s governments. Most of the member states are not fully democratic and have an obvious interest in whitewashing each other’s appalling human rights records and deflecting attention toward democracies that actually have an institutional capacity for self-criticism. This isn’t necessarily a negative trait; indeed, it’s what distinguishes free nations—which have the structures and traditions, like an independent judiciary and a free press, for exposing the nation’s problems and working to solve them—from authoritarian ones. And it’s in this civic and constructive spirit, not knee-jerk anti-Americanism, that the Council on Global Equality submitted its report.

But while the council’s motives may have been benign, the publishing of the report does a disservice to those gays struggling under the yoke of oppressive regimes. Categorizing the legal discrimination against gays in the United States alongside the policies of authoritarian regimes effectively minimizes the appalling way in which the world’s genuine human rights abusers treat their gay citizens. Of course, U.S. sexual minorities do face harassment, violence, and, albeit rarely, even death. The opening anecdote to the report comes from the mother of Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old transgender woman who was brutally murdered in 2002. But the difference between the murder of Araujo and the violence perpetrated against gay people in places like Iran is that the latter form is state-sponsored. The murderers of Gwen Araujo were prosecuted by the state. This is not to downplay the legal difficulties that American gays continue to confront, but there’s no comparison between not being allowed to obtain a marriage license and living under constant fear of being lynched.



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