The United Nations this week, in an historic vote led by the United States and cosponsored by 85 countries, voted to condemn violence against LGBT people around the world — in stark contrast to a vote last November that initially allowed gays to be executed without cause. How did it happen? What are the roots of this new-found tolerance and support? Columbia University human rights professor and Eurasia expert Tanya Domi points to Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton as two pieces of a very large puzzle as she explains the backstory.
Despite horrific incidents of violence perpetrated against gay people from New York City to Moscow, from Kampala to Sarajevo and from Dakar to Tehran, Wednesday’s burgeoning, supportive vote by the UN Human Rights Council that condemned violence against persons for their sexual orientation or gender identity and affirmed that international human rights values and principles apply to sexual minorities, was actually set in motion in Vienna in 1993, when the UN convened the World Conference on Human Rights–called by many historians a “rare and defining moment.”
The 1993 Vienna conference convened member states for a review and affirmation of human rights laws and practices in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948 and drafted under Eleanor Roosevelt’s visionary leadership — arguably her greatest legacy. With Rene Casio, a Canadian lawyer, Roosevelt rhetorically and intellectually through the drafting of UDHR sought to achieve the human rights aims originally contained in the UN Charter through the direct participation of non-state actors, whom she described as “a curious grapevine that would penetrate closed societies and could potentially transmit the messages of human rights abuses to the international community.”
At the founding of the UN there were approximately 41 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) registered with the UN and over the years these numbers have grown exponentially into the thousands.
Also over the years, through the Helsinki Process and the opening up of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the Anti-Apartheid campaign against the former South African regime and into the 1990s, women globally began insisting that women’s rights are human rights too, eventually articulated by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton at Beijing in 1995.
Thus the human rights moment presented at Vienna almost two decades ago was a culmination of NGO advocates’ efforts over many years of work, representing hundreds of non-governmental organizations from across the world descended upon the World Conference demanding a greater direct role in the UN human rights processes. The NGO activist presence at the Vienna Conference ultimately persuaded 170 Member States to support the transformation of the UN human rights regime by creating the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, originally envisioned at the founding of the UN in 1945.
The other main UN instruments that support its human rights mandate include the Economic and Social Council, originally established under the United Nations Charter as the principal organ to coordinate economic, social, and related work of the 14 UN specialized agencies, functional commissions and five regional commissions. The Human Rights Commission, now known as a council, meets three times a year and has a 10 point standard agenda that shapes the work and focus of the council throughout the year.
But the establishment of the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights at Vienna is viewed by scholars and many advocates as the ultimate actualization of “We the people,” as described under the UN Charter. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, articulated in 1993, lays out the High Commissioner’s mandate and roadmap to advance human rights policy and work at the UN. (Here is a detailed action guide on processes of the Human Rights Council.)
This past Wednesday, during the discussion on follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration of the agenda, 85 countries called for an end to anti-LGBT violence and were joined in support by 118 NGOs who signed a Joint Statement in celebration of this “stunning” vote, thus formally affirming human rights for LGBT people in the Human Rights Council by growing numbers of supportive States.
It is my belief that U.S. foreign policy is leading the way forward to secure human rights for LGBT peoples globally, by the Obama Administration with Secretary Clinton articulating it most forcefully, stating “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights,” echoing her transformative words about women rights at Beijing 16 years ago.
Among the U.S. based NGOs that have been active on LGBT human rights issues and signed onto the joint statement of support present in Geneva this week included the Council for Global Equality, The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, based at Rutgers University, Human Rights First (formerly known as the Lawyer’s Committee,) Human Rights Watch, The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Queer African Youth Network , and The American Jewish World Service (headed by Ruth Messinger, former NYC Councilwoman and candidate for Mayor.)
The Uganda LGBT community was represented by more than 10 NGOS and among activists present included the highly respected Ugandan lesbian activist Kasha Jacqueline. Also attending and signing onto the Joint Statement of Support was the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, ARC International (Canada and Switzerland) the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (Canada, Mexico and South Africa) and The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (New Delhi and London.)
Much work remains to be done to formally establish human rights protocols that provide protections to persons who are sexual minorities, as more than 70 UN Member States continue to prosecute people because of their sexual orientation. Naysayers use “cultural relativist” arguments against the inclusion of LGBT recognized rights, such as the African Union and other con arguments offered by Pakistan, for example, asserting that the Human Rights Council was setting about to create a new set of human rights that has no legal foundation in any existing human rights instruments. Nonetheless, Wednesday’s vote at the UN Human Rights Council is a watershed moment marking the universality that human rights are LGBT rights and strongly indicates a new impetus in the UN’s continual advance toward realizing human rights for all people, including those who happen to be gay.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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