“Leave no one behind” is the foundational principle of the United Nations' Agenda 2030, which, with its Sustainable Development Goals, targets, and implementation plans, forms the most comprehensive blueprint for eliminating extreme poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the planet the world has ever seen.
This principle should be music to the ears of anyone involved in the movement for LGBT equality, in the United States or around the world. For too long LGBT people have indeed been left behind –– ostracized by society, discriminated against, and persecuted. Sadly, in many places today, they continue to be subject to violence and oppression simply because of who they are and whom they love.
With an opening address by Pope Francis, heads of state gathered at the U.N. this weekend to adopt this ambitious roadmap for achieving sustainable development on our planet over the next 15 years. Yet throughout the 35-page draft document there is no mention of the words “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” or of LGBT people.
So how can this agenda possibly help to advance the cause of global equality?
During the three years of negotiations that led to this agenda, there were numerous efforts by LGBT advocates and our allies, especially in the women’s health and reproductive rights community, to include specific references to sexual orientation and gender identity wherever marginalized and vulnerable groups were specified. But despite support from some governments, it became clear last September, when a lead U.N. official said that LGBT rights “were off the table,” that efforts to include specific identity-based language might even backfire.
So, in the face of opposition from a bloc of countries, including Russia and most African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Caribbean countries, as well as the Vatican and religious groups, a consensus emerged to ease up on those efforts rather than risk derailing negotiations or rolling back previously agreed-upon language.
The good news is that there is still sufficiently broad language related to inclusion and sexual and reproductive health and rights that it can encompass LGBT issues. What matters now is how this text gets interpreted and applied going forward. A number of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries of the LGBT Core Group at the United Nations, plus key U.N. bodies such as the development and children’s agencies, have made it clear that to them, protecting marginalized groups includes protecting people against discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity as well as other identities not specially mentioned.
• Goals 10 and 16 are notable for their broad language that can make a major difference for LGBT people. Aiming to “reduce inequality within and among countries” and “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels,” ould further the inclusion and just treatment of LGBT people.
• Those goals that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls could help improve the lives of lesbians as well as bisexual and transgender women. In addition, there are specific targets that seek to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all” and “ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action.”
• Not only are the Sustainable Develpment Goals themselves inclusive enough to encompass LGBT rights, there are many other places within the United Nations where our community has made tremendous progress and there is opportunity ahead. The U.N. Human Rights Council has adopted specific sexual orientation and gender identity language and recently released a terrific report on global LGBT rights. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly and consistently used his platform to advocate for equality, and the Universal Periodic Review is an increasingly well-respected forum for countries to be judged on their human rights records. And the Security Council recently held a historic hearing on ISIS and its persecution of LGBT people — its first-ever hearing on LGBT rights.
So while Agenda 2030, like the result of most major international negotiations, is a compromise, it is nonetheless a major step forward in the face of virulent anti-LGBT sentiment and actions, and well-organized and well-financed campaigns by political and religious conservatives to roll back LGBT rights around the world. It takes time for norms to shift, and the goals, with their 15 year time frame, provide a flexibility of language that will accommodate changing values in countries that might not be able to accept them now.
There is nothing in Agenda 2030 that on its face can slow down the momentum toward equality. In fact, it may even provide new opportunities to protect and empower LGBT people around the world, and to realize its stated vision of “a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met.”
But that will only happen if all governments, in all parts of the world, take active and concrete steps to include LGBT people in the implementation of these goals. The global LGBT community will be focusing our energy and efforts to make sure that they do and holding them to account if they do not.
JEAN FREEDBERG is the deputy director of Human Rights Campaign Global.