U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, after her speech on human rights issues at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday.
Published: December 6, 2011
GENEVA — The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that the United States would use all the tools of American diplomacy, including the potent enticement of foreign aid, to promote gay rights around the world.
In a memorandum issued by President Obama in Washington and in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here, the administration vowed to actively combat efforts by other nations that criminalize homosexual conduct, abuse gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered people, or ignore abuse against them.
“Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct,” Mrs. Clinton said at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, “but in fact they are one and the same.”
Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton specified how to give the initiative teeth. Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council’s deputy spokeswoman, said the administration was “not cutting or tying” foreign aid to changes in other nation’s practices.
Still, raising the issue to such prominence on the administration’s foreign policy agenda is important, symbolically, much like President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights.
With campaigning already under way in the 2012 presidential contest, Mr. Obama’s announcement could bolster support among gay voters and donors, who have questioned the depth of his commitment. He chose the Rev. Rick Warren, a pastor who opposessame-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Mr. Obama himself has not come out officially in favor of same-sex marriage. But he successfully pushed for repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevented gays from serving openly in the military. And the Justice Department has said it will no longer defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
The initiative also invites attacks from Republicans trying to appeal to a conservative base in the primary and caucus states.
One Republican candidate, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, said: “President Obama has again mistaken America’s tolerance for different lifestyles with an endorsement of those lifestyles. I will not make that mistake.”
It could also irritate some American allies, including countries like Turkey, where there have been reports of harassment, and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is banned and sex between people of the same sex is punishable by death or flogging.
Mrs. Clinton anticipated the sensitivity of the issue for some more conservative countries, saying that “the obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights” of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people “rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural and religious beliefs.”
She argued that gay rights transcended national, political and even culture boundaries, casting them as universal rights like those adopted by 48 nations in the aftermath of World War II in what was called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides so worried about the reaction of some countries at the Human Rights Council that they did not advertise the theme of her remarks before she delivered them. In the end, no representatives from the council’s 47 member nations walked out, and the audience gave her a standing ovation.
The administration’s announcement formalizes several steps that Mrs. Clinton has already ordered. She has asked American diplomats to raise the issue wherever harassment or abuse arises and required a record of them in the State Department’s annual report on human rights. On Tuesday, she also announced a $3 million program to finance gay-rights organizations to combat discrimination, violence and other abuses.
A senior administration official said that the money could be used, for example, to finance a lawyers’ group that is defending gays or to pay for the training of journalists who cover the persecution of gays. It could also provide relocation aid to refugees fleeing violence or persecution.
“I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting L.G.B.T. persons around the world,” Mr. Obama said in the memorandum, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, “whether it is passing laws that criminalize L.G.B.T. status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful L.G.B.T. pride celebrations, or killing men, women and children for their perceived sexual orientation.”
He said in the memorandum that the State Department would lead other federal agencies to help ensure that the government provided a “swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten the human rights” of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people abroad.
The administration’s directive, months in the planning, came after a series of legal steps taken against gay men and lesbians in countries like Uganda, where the Parliament reopened debate on legislation that would outlaw homosexuality and possibly make it punishable by death.
The State Department’s latest human rights report, released in April, catalogued cases in dozens of countries.
In Afghanistan, where the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001 and installed a nominally democratic government, the law “criminalizes homosexual activity.” In Pakistan, too, it is a crime, though rarely prosecuted, the report said.
Homosexuality is accepted in most of Europe, and an increasing number of countries have taken steps to end legal prohibitions. In China, the government decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from an official list of psychological disorders in 2001. Mrs. Clinton credited South Africa, Colombia, Argentina, Nepal and Mongolia for taking steps to liberalize their laws.
She also noted that, until 2003, sodomy was a crime in parts of the United States and that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people Americans “have endured violence and harassment in their lives.”
As was the case with the initial declaration on human rights, which did not immediately abolish racist laws or social and political barriers for women or religious minorities, she said, the notion of human rights has gradually expanded to include all people. She dismissed the assertion of some that homosexuality is “a Western phenomenon.”
“In reality, gay people are born into — and belong to — every society in the world,” she said.
In countries “where people are jailed, beaten or executed for being gay,” she called on leaders to leap ahead of their constituents cultural or social mores, if necessary. “I’m not saying that gay people can’t or don’t commit crimes,” she said. “They can and do, just like straight people. And when they do, they should be held accountable. But it should never be a crime to be gay.”