Following weeks of intense lobbying by gay activists and the United States, member states of
the United Nations voted Tuesday evening to restore "sexual orientation"
to a resolution that condemns extrajudicial killings.
The assembly voted 93 in favor of the United States' proposal to restore the previous language, with 55 countries against and 27 abstaining. The assembly then approved the amended resolution with 122 in favor, zero votes against, and 59 abstentions, including the United States, which withheld support for reasons unrelated to the sexual orientation reference it worked to restore.
"Today, the United Nations General Assembly has sent a clear and resounding message that justice and human rights apply to all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation," said Susan E. Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, in a statement following the vote.
The reference to sexual orientation has been included in the biennial
resolution on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary killings since 1999.
Last month, following the introduction of an amendment from Benin on
behalf of the African countries at a meeting of the Third Committee,
which deals with human rights issues, the language was deleted and
replaced with a more general reference to "discriminatory reasons on any
basis." The committee, which includes all 192 member states of the
United Nations, approved the amendment by a vote of 79-70, with 17
abstentions, and the resolution without specific reference to sexual
orientation passed by a vote of 165-0, with 10 abstentions, including
the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the following statement after the vote on Tuesday.
"I am pleased by the UN General Assembly's action today to include sexual orientation in a resolution condemning extrajudicial and summary executions. The United States introduced this language to send an unequivocal message in concert with our many international partners: No one should be killed for who they are.
"Sadly, many people around the world continue to be targeted and killed because of their sexual orientation. These heinous crimes must be condemned and investigated wherever they occur. We look forward to continuing our work with others around the world to protect the human rights of those facing threats or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
In the days leading up to the final vote, advocates urged member states to approve an amendment introduced by
the United States to restore the reference to sexual orientation.
"This, of course, could not have happened without the concerted and passionate efforts of several governments," said Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International
Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) in a statement. "But what this victory also demonstrates is the power of civil society at the UN and working across countries and regions to demand that their own governments vote to protect LGBT lives. The outpouring of
support from the international community sent the strong message to our
representatives at the UN that it is unacceptable to make invisible the deadly
violence LGBT people face because of their actual or perceived sexual
In a speech on Human Rights Day less than two weeks ago, Ambassador Rice said she was "incensed"
about the vote in the Third Committee and vowed that the U.S. would work
to restore the reference to sexual orientation in the resolution. Her
remarks followed a speech by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in which
he spoke forcefully against the criminalization of homosexuality.
"We've been working intensely with
allies and partners to make sure that we win this vote," Mark Kornblau,
spokesman for the United States Mission to the United Nations, said
before the final vote.
Advocates said that the public comments, coupled with the ferocity
of the lobbying effort, had contributed to their hopeful posture.
"I feel good about it because I think there's been a
lot of advocacy and a lot of good developments at the United Nations,"
said Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, who cited the Human
Rights Day speeches.
Representatives of lobbying groups outlined a feverish effort that targeted member states from a variety of regions believed to be reachable based on factors such as their past voting records.
"We have essentially a list of swing states," said Jessica Stern, director of programs for IGLRHC, who mentioned outreach to about 20 governments from regions including the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands and Africa.
While impossible to measure, the impact of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal on the international lobbying effort could not be discounted. Ambassador Rice denounced the military policy in the Human Rights Day speech where she pledged U.S. support for the restoration of sexual orientation to the resolution condemning extrajudicial killings.
"I think consistency on your human rights record affects everything," said Stern.
Positive signs leading up to the vote included the ability to secure the support of Albania, according to Boris Dittrich, acting director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch, who described his group's outlook as "quite hopeful."
"If we will win the vote, it will really change the momentum at the UN in favor of LGBT rights," he said, citing recent setbacks like the shelving of a report on sexuality and education from the Special Rapporteur on the right to education.
Lobbying groups describe a climate at the UN where steady overall progress on their issues generates pushback, which may explain the passage of the amendment last month to eliminate the reference to sexual orientation. Also, issues get caught in the broader geopolitical dynamics.
"LGBT rights are used as a political football at the domestic level," said Stern. "It happens at the international level, too."
Whatever the cause, the practical effect of a resolution on extrajudicial killings that eliminates the reference to sexual orientation could have been life-threatening for activists on the ground. Although UN resolutions are not legally binding, they send a powerful message.
"What it says to the country is that the UN is not supportive of gay rights," said Mugisha of Uganda, where the parliament is considering a bill authored by David Bahati that would impose the death penalty on gay people. "They use anything like this for their own advocacy. He can jump on that."