Will U.S. Move On Global Gay Rights Hurt, Or Help?

Daisy Sindelar, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
December 07, 2011

Is the United States upholding human rights, or meddling in other people's business?

That may be the question in many countries following a coordinated call by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for governments around the world to do more to protect gay rights.

Clinton, speaking on December 6 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, called for a worldwide end to the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, saying, "It should never be a crime to be gay."

Adding muscle to her remarks, Clinton said Obama had instructed government agencies responsible for allocating foreign aid to contribute to the fight.

"The president has directed all U.S. government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights," Clinton said.

In a memo released the same day, Obama ordered all representatives of the U.S. government working overseas to "ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance to promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons."

The initiative is certain to raise hackles in conservative countries that chafe at the notion of Washington acting as a kind of morality police.

'Consistency, Honesty Important'

Homosexuality is currently a criminal offense in dozens of countries worldwide, including two of the top recipients of U.S. aid, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The directive, however, stops short of making foreign aid conditional on a country's performance on gay rights.

Some activists defended the move as an attempt to protect local LGBT activists from coming under attack as a result of slashed foreign aid.

Renato Sabbadini, the co-secretary-general of the Brussels-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), also says that such conditions can only be effective if they are applied consistently.

Sabbadini cites the examples of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries say homosexuality is punishable by death. But one, Saudi Arabia, enjoys close ties with the United States, while the other, Iran, does not.

"If the U.S. government were to cut foreign aid on the basis of the violation of LGBT rights, then this would be a wise measure only if it was applied consistently both to Iran and to Saudi Arabia," Sabbadini says.

"We understand that there are probably many other considerations which probably wouldn't see this kind of action from the U.S. government," he adds. "So in this case it is better to be honest, as the White House has been in its communications, and say that foreign aid is not directly linked to the violation of LGBT rights."

Little Change In South Asia

Without the threat of slashed aid, it remains unclear how U.S. government pressure can be brought to bear on countries with a history of antigay discrimination.

The problem is particularly difficult in countries like Pakistan, where social conservatism and anti-American sentiment are both strong. Large demonstrations broke out in the country in June after staff at the U.S. Embassy held a gay-pride celebration there.

Pakistan has made unusual strides in recent months toward establishing the rights of its third-gender minority, but otherwise social stigma and the Criminal Code are strongly discriminatory against gays and lesbians.

Afghanistan likewise prohibits homosexual activity. The U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report, found that Afghan authorities "sporadically" enforce the prohibition.

'May Make It Worse'

Another country that is likely to resist U.S. finger-wagging is Russia, where the Orthodox Church and nationalist movements have joined forces to repress the country's burgeoning gay-rights movement.

The Moscow City Court last month upheld the city government's decision to ban a gay-pride parade in May, a standoff that culminated in a violent confrontation between gay-rights activists, police, and antigay demonstrators.

And lawmakers in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly are currently mulling a bill that would ban anything seen as promoting homosexuality and pedophilia among minors. The proposal has sparked angry protests among gay-rights activists, who say such a law could be used to crack down on members of Russia's LGBT community.

Russian officials, however, defend their record on gay rights and have indicated they will broach no criticism from American shores. Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry's commissioner for human rights, democracy, and rule of law, criticized what he called U.S. "intervention" on his country's legislative process after Clinton made an earlier call for gay tolerance last month.

Russian gay-rights groups have cautiously welcomed the latest show of support from Clinton and Obama.

But Olga Lenkova, the head of communications for Coming Out, a St. Petersburg-based LGBT support group, says her group is concerned that the well-intentioned U.S. message may have unintended consequences for things like Petersburg's propaganda bill.

"We were actually a little worried by the Foreign Ministry's reaction. There's traditionally a very strong anti-American mood in Russia. We're worried that the Petersburg Legislative Assembly will now, to the contrary, pass the legislation out of malice."

Still, Lenkova says, it was good to hear the words of support. "The issue of gay rights gets very little attention in Russia," she says. "If the West didn't bring it up, it wouldn't come up at all."

Article courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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