U.N. Recognizes Gay Rights As Human Rights

Originally published on July 1, 2011 8:24 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, I'll talk with the new editor of Essence magazine, Constance C.R. White. We'll talk about her vision for the iconic magazine, one of the top brands among ethnic and women's publications. We'll also take a peak at the July issue, Ms. White's first, which includes the first published story by none other than Beyonce.

But first, we take a look at an historic moment at the United Nations last week. The top U.N. human rights body, the Human Rights Council, adopted a resolution endorsing equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

We wanted to know more about why this was such a significant event and how it came about, so we've called upon Suzanne Nossel. She is the deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the State Department. She's also a former chief operating officer for Human Rights Watch, the human rights organization. And she's nice enough to join us today in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Can you give us some background? How exactly did this resolution come about and what is it meant to do?

NOSSEL: Sure. We've been working on this issue for some time, trying to build a wider sense that LGBT rights are human rights. So we've been putting this on the agenda in U.N. forums. We've been strongly defending these rights when they come under challenge.

In March, we joined together with a group of 85 countries from every region of the world to put forward a strong joint statement affirming LGBT rights as human rights. And, really, the next step was a resolution, something that's actually an official document within the U.N. system and that has the weight of the U.N. behind it.

And so, we joined together with Brazil, Colombia, and significantly, South Africa, which is actually the country that tabled the resolution. And put this forward. We did lobbying in capitals around the world and through our diplomatic team in Geneva to get this resolution passed.

MARTIN: What is the significance of the fact that the text was presented by South Africa?

NOSSEL: It was significant in that this is a divisive issue. It's an area where the international community hasn't yet reached consensus. These rights are not recognized everywhere. We still see repressive practices. We see laws that discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We've seen violence perpetrated against individuals because of their sexual orientation.

And some of the problems have centered in Africa, and there have been vigorous debates. There was a debate in the Ugandan parliament over the last few months about a new piece, a very harmful legislation that had been proposed there. So to have an African country step forward and take the lead on this issue was very significant. They came under some criticism. They did not have widespread support within the African groups. So this is a real stand on behalf of human rights by South Africa.

MARTIN: As we mentioned - well, you mentioned that this was a very close vote. The text was adopted by 23 countries in favor, 19 against. There were three abstentions. Libya's membership in the 47-member Geneva forum was suspended in March for obvious reasons. I think it's probably no surprise that the United States and Britain and France were in favor. What were some of the arguments against?

NOSSEL: Some countries are still making the argument that these rights are not recognized, that they're not covered in the universal declaration on human rights. That this is a matter that should be up to national governments and individual societies to deal with as they see fit and not a subject for the U.N.'s engagement.

MARTIN: As I understand it, Saudi Arabia, for example, made the argument that the international body was imposing its views on other countries. And that this was contrary to the culture of other countries. Nigeria, as I understand, made the argument that the majority of South Africans don't support this in their view. And apparently this caused a stir, sort of in the course of the discussions. What about that argument?

NOSSEL: Yeah. I mean, that's an argument that comes up in so many debates on human rights issues, where in order to resist recognizing the rights, countries will say, well, this is a matter of our national cultural identity or our national jurisdiction. And, you know, in essence they're saying these rights are not universal. People in our society don't deserve these rights or don't hold these rights.

You know, the view that we take is they are universal. While the governments may take that position, individuals who are living in these societies who want the freedom to choose their own lifestyle, to choose who they want to love, they do enjoy these rights inherently as human beings. And so, if their governments are not willing to recognize it, it's important to take a stand in the U.N. system. And that gradually, over time, we think that more and more governments and societies will recognize that these rights have their place.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution adopted last week in support of LGBT rights. With me is Suzanne Nossel. She's the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for international organizations, and played a key role in getting the resolution passed.

There's no enforcement mechanism, is there? Is this mainly to declare the intention of the international community, to set a standard that this is the international community standard on human rights? Or is there any leverage attached?

NOSSEL: It's not a legally binding resolution, and it's not as though by the stroke of a pen at the United Nations, all of a sudden, repressive national legislation or discriminatory practices are going to be swept away. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. But what this does do, it's really laid down an important marker.

And it also offers a tool to activists in their own countries who are challenging repressive laws or persecution. They can say, look, this is out of step with what the United Nations has just said. It also sets in motion reporting on incidents of discrimination and violence.

So it gives activists and victims of abuses a place to turn to say, here's what happened to me and to shine an international spotlight so that the United Nations will pay attention to those abuses. And countries will feel some pressure to address those practices and improve their records.

MARTIN: What's the next human rights issue that you think we should turn our attention to?

NOSSEL: There's a lot more work to do in stepping up the pressure and the attention to LGBT rights. Increasing the visibility of the issue, widening that circle of countries that supported the resolution, so that it encompasses more and more so that we don't see certain regions kind of underrepresented in the group of countries that supports this resolution. So that's going to be very important.

And then we're always working on trying to get the U.N. human rights system to take on the most serious abuses around the world and to be less selective in their approach. So there are country situations that we put on the table and we also try to push forward on a whole range of thematic issues, be it women's rights, children's rights, accountability for human rights abuses.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, though, one criticism of the resolution is that the executive director of U.N. Watch, which is a Geneva-based human rights monitor, said that while they commend the body for adopting this resolution, it still has not addressed some of the other pressing international matters like Syria, the Gaza Strip, things of that sort. How does one answer that?

NOSSEL: Well, we rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council in September of 2009. The Bush administration had stayed out of the council as the Obama administration remade the decision to come and be part of it. And one of the criticisms that had led the Bush administration to hold back was that the body was too one-sided, too focused on Israel, ignored a range of other human rights situations. And we've really worked hard to reverse that trend.

Just over the last few months we've seen very strong resolutions at the council on Libya, on Iran, on Syria. So the body has become much more active. And while we haven't taken on every country's situation, I think that critique really doesn't hold the way it did in years past.

MARTIN: Suzanne Nossel is the deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the State Department. She was kind enough to join us today in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ms. Nossel, thank you so much for joining us.

NOSSEL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.