March 6, 2012

James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor to the New Republic and to World Affairs Journal.

For many, “gay rights” is associated with the debate over whether gay people should be allowed to marry, adopt children or serve openly in the military. But a discussion looming before the United Nations this week is far more basic: whether gays should enjoy the basic right to life.  

On Wednesday the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva is to discuss the recommendations of a November report surveying the discrimination and abuse — often state-sponsored — that gay people endure around the world. The findings are chilling: Some 680 transgender people were murdered in 50 countries between 2008 and 2011; 76 countries classify homosexuality as a crime, and at least five of those apply the death penalty. Even those who disapprove of homosexuality on religious grounds are unlikely to object to the report’s anodyne recommendations: that governments should decriminalize homosexuality, work to prevent violence against gays and recognize sexual orientation as a valid cause for asylum.

But not everyone welcomes the report’s conclusions. The most vociferous opposition has come from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 Muslim states. “We note with concern the attempts to create controversial ‘new notions’ or ‘new standards’ by misinterpreting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international treaties to include such notions that were never articulated or agreed to by the U.N. membership,” Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, wrote to the president of the Human Rights Council on the Muslim organization’s behalf.

Akram referred to homosexuality as “personal behavior and preferences,” reducing the emotional identity of gays to the performance of sexual acts. This is not only offensive to the dignity of gays but also obscures the oppression faced by many, which often has nothing to do with sexual behavior. A bill before the Ugandan legislature, for instance, seeks to punish those who know gay individuals and do not report them to police.

The Muslim group argues that legally protecting gays from violence would foist “new standards” on the world. In fact, it would simply clarify that governments respect the standards articulated in the very same Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Akram cited. The declaration says that all individuals­ are guaranteed “the right to be free from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to be free from discrimination and the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.” That “sexual orientation” is not specified does not grant governments license to oppress homosexuals or permit violence against them. The November U.N. report notes, “The specific grounds of discrimination referred to in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” to which most countries in the Muslim group are signatories, “and other human rights treaties are not exhaustive.”

Akram also wrote: “We are even more disturbed at the attempt to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their abnormal sexual behavior, while not focusing on the glaring instances of intolerance and discrimination in various parts of the world, be it on the basis of color, race, gender or religion.” It is indeed a pity that the United Nations does not call more attention to those who face discrimination because of their color, race, gender or religion. But a Muslim group whose members include some of the world’s most repressive regimes has little standing on that score.  

The Obama administration has done more than any previous American government to advance gay rights abroad, reversing the policy of the George W. Bush administration by endorsing a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “gay rights are human rights”; the same week, President Obama directed federal agencies to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

These efforts are an excellent start, but more must be done. As Washington seeks to influence the course of the Arab upheavals, it must encourage new governments to include gays under fundamental human rights protections. Already, some developments underscore why: The U.N. Watch blog reported last month that Libya’s delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Council said that gays threaten “the continuation and reproduction of the human race” and that, had his country not been suspended from the council last summer during its civil war, it would have opposed a resolution condemning violence against gay people.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in 2010 that “where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day.” A government with the most basic respect for human decency would neither carry out nor overlook violence against gays. If the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation wish to join the civilized world, they should attempt to learn rather than lecture.  

Read more on gay rights at PostOpinions:

Jonathan Capehart: Better to be gay in the USA

Ruth Marcus: The good politics of gay marriage

Jonathan Capehart: Blacks and gays and the shared struggle for civil rights