State Department officials say the U.N.'s first-ever resolution on “sexual orientation and gender identity” represents an international victory for the Obama administration's policy agenda.
“This is really a paradigmatic example of using the U.N. system to advance one of President Obama's top policy priorities,” said Suzanne Nossel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, after the resolution's passage on June 17. “We’ve been able to deliver on broad international support behind an agenda that we have set as a key goal for this Administration.”
During Friday's media briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dan Baer also emphasized the role of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Geneva-based Human Rights Council's decision.
“Both the President and Secretary Clinton have made LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) human rights a priority,” Baer said. He recalled that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton “gave a speech last year in which she said gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
“She has sent out a cable to all ambassadors instructing them that LGBT human rights are part of our comprehensive human rights policy,” he stated.
Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, said the resolution was “a game changer … at least at the Human Rights Council, on the topic of protections for LGBT people.”
The text of the resolution is, despite all the publicity, relatively modest. It requests the commissioning of a study documenting “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
That study will seek to determine “how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” Next spring the council will convene a panel discussion to discuss the study's findings.
Nossel says the resolution won't create a “sea change overnight.” Rather, she explained, “it’s a beginning of an international norm that will take hold gradually.”
“If you look at the human rights provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they didn’t all take hold overnight.” But, she said, “by putting them down definitively in an internationally-backed document, you set an irreversible process in motion.”
Proposals to place “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” on the same level as race, religion, or biological gender have encountered opposition at the U.N., from Muslim countries as well as the Vatican.
Opposition from several African and Middle Eastern countries ensured that Friday's vote was close one. In the end, 23 countries supported the resolution, first introduced by South Africa, with 19 countries voting against it.
Two historically Eastern Orthodox countries, Russia and Moldova, joined the Arab and African countries in their opposition. Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Hungary and Ukraine were all among the resolution's supporters.
The Holy See's permanent mission in Geneva has not yet issued a public statement on the resolution. But the Vatican has repeatedly called for an approach that respects the legitimate human rights of all persons, without falsely equating heterosexual and homosexual behavior.
In 2008, the Holy See explained that it opposes “unjust discrimination toward homosexual persons,” while objecting to the categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
The Vatican is concerned that these categories “create serious uncertainty in the law” regarding matters such as marriage, adoption, and the rights of religious organizations.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer and representative at the Human Rights Council, spoke out in March 2011 against the misuse of the “orientation” concept as a means of attacking those who reject an ideology of sexual liberation.
The archbishop pointed out that the term “sexual orientation” refers properly to “feelings and thoughts, not to behavior.”
“For the purposes of human rights law, there is a critical difference between feelings and thoughts, on the one hand, and behavior, on the other,” Archbishop Tomasi explained.
“A state should never punish a person, or deprive a person of the enjoyment of any human right, based just on the person’s feelings and thoughts, including sexual thoughts and feelings.”
“But states can, and must, regulate behaviors, including various sexual behaviors. Throughout the world, there is a consensus between societies that certain kinds of sexual behaviors must be forbidden by law. Pedophilia and incest are two examples.”