American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a speech in Geneva on Tuesday night to push for a global campaign to combat discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The issue is “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time”, Clinton said in a forceful address at the European headquarters of the United Nations.
“Gay rights are human rights,” she told an assembly of diplomats and invited guests in a presentation made in recognition of Human Rights Day, which is celebrated on December 10.
The victims of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people “are in many ways an invisible minority”, Clinton said.
“Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse,” she said.
“They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.”
Middle East allies
Clinton did not name offending countries, but a human rights report issued by her department earlier this year raised concerns about such discrimination in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Washington, officials from the administration of United States President Barack Obama said the US would use foreign aid to promote gay rights abroad.
In a statement, Obama said he was “deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT people around the world”.
He added that the US government would provide a “swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten the human rights” of such people.
The move immediately sparked a backlash in the US from conservative Republican politicians, and it threatens to raise hackles in some countries, including allies such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is banned and gay sex is punishable by death.
“Raising this issue is sensitive for many people,” acknowledged Clinton, who received a standing ovation for her remarks at the UN, where gay activists cheered her words.
“The obstacles standing in the way of protecting human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural and religious beliefs,” she said.
But no practice or tradition, she said, should override universal human rights.
"It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave."
Clinton likened the fight for respect for LGBT people to the past human rights battles waged to protect indigenous people, children and people with disabilities.
None of these groups were explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved 63 years ago, she noted.
“Yet we have come to realise that these groups are entitled to the full measure of human dignity and rights.”
Clinton admitted that America’s record on human rights for gay people is “far from perfect”.
Being gay was still a crime in many parts of the US until 2003, while LGBT people continue to suffer from violence, harassment, bullying and exclusion, she said.
“So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.”
Among recent measures, the Obama government has repealed a ban on openly gay soldiers in the military but it has stopped short of backing gay marriage.
Clinton’s remarks came as a surprise to some observers who speculated that the head of American diplomacy would talk about human rights in Syria.
Earlier on Tuesday, Clinton met opponents of Syria’s President Bashar Assad in Geneva but the get-together appeared to be inconclusive.
The UN estimates more than 4,000 people have died in Syria since March when an uprising against Assad began, followed by government reprisals.
Daniel Warner, a Geneva-based expert on foreign affairs and American politics, says the US is stepping carefully on the Syria issue, despite Obama’s call in August for Assad to step down.
“I don’t think they [Washington] have a clear solution,” Warner told swissinfo.ch, adding that the US is leery of provoking a civil war in Syria, given that a clear alternative to Assad has yet to emerge.
He downplayed the impact that Clinton’s intervention on gay rights will have on such countries as Saudi Arabia, given the strong ties it has with the US.
No election issue
And Warner predicted the subject would barely register in the American election duel looming next year between the Republican and the Democratic parties.
Foreign policy is not getting prime time attention and the promotion of global gay rights championed by Clinton “is not a major campaign issue”, he said.
Gay rights groups, however, applauded Clinton’s speech and the policies backed by the Obama administration.
Joe Solmonese, president of US-based Human Rights Campaign, said Clinton and Obama deserved credit.
“As Americans, we understand that no one should be made a criminal or subject to violence or even death because of who they are, no matter where they live,” Solmonese said in a statement.
GAY RIGHTS GAIN TRACTION
The UN Human Rights Council has become more vocal about promoting gay rights. In June the body passed a measure supporting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
In March it adopted a statement on gay rights, supported by 85 countries, called "Ending Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity".
Under Sharia law, Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, outlaw sex between homosexuals. A 2010 US State Department report on human rights says that it is also “illegal for men to ‘behave like women’ or to wear women’s clothes and vice versa” in that country.
In Africa, the parliament of Uganda recently decided to reopen a debate on a controversial bill that seeks to outlaw homosexuality. The move could be expanded to include the death penalty for gay men and lesbians. That bill was shelved earlier this year amid widespread international condemnation.
In Pakistan, sex between gays and lesbians is a criminal offence, although it is rarely prosecuted.end of infobox
The US State Department report on human rights for 2010, released in April this year, cites “occasional reports” in Switzerland of societal violence or discrimination based on sexual orientation.
On International Day against Homophobia, held on May 17, 2010, the Swiss gay organisation, Pink Cross, reported that homosexual children from immigrant families, particularly from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East, suffered heavy reprisals by their families.
Representatives of the Young Social Democratic Party and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organisations complained that gay men suffered discrimination, as they were not allowed to donate blood.
On March 2, 2010 the Swiss section of Amnesty International filed a petition to parliament calling for the gender-based persecution of LGBT persons to be incorporated into federal law as a category of persecution qualifying an applicant for asylum in the country.
The report highlighted with apparent approval the fact that last year on June 9, Zurich Pride, a festival for LGBT persons, took place "with the same level of security and police presence as many other large public events in the country".end of infobox