The past week saw two remarkable developments at the United Nations, and the world took notice of both. One was the passage of a resolution condemning the use of the death penalty as punishment for consensual gay relations. LGBT groups viewed the moment as a major milestone, what the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association called a “historic first.” Celebrations, however, were muted. That’s because of the other occurrence: The United States, until recently a leader in the global effort to advance human rights, voted against the resolution.
Even though the UN Human Rights Council’s measure does not outlaw the use of the death penalty, Washington’s decision to vote no on the resolution still sent shockwaves among human rights groups and their supporters. And the shock was not limited to the United States. Headlines in other countries noted that America sided with the nations that refused to condemn the medieval — but still practiced — policy of killing people simply because they are gay. They noted, correctly, that the US vote was dictated by fear of undercutting the death penalty itself.
In 2014, the Obama administration abstained from a resolution from the Human Rights Council on the death penalty, though that resolution notably lacked any provision related to its specific use against gay or transgender individuals.
The fact is that we live in a world where even today gay people are being arrested, tortured and killed because of their sexual orientation. And the United States didn’t just let an opportunity to condemn those atrocities pass by — it did much worse. It took a stand against that condemnation.
This latest vote came as a stark reminder that under the current administration, the United States hasn’t just given up its commitment to advancing human rights. It has, instead, changed sides in that struggle. We initially heard from the US State Department that the human rights agenda would be sidelined, and we’ve watched President Donald Trump repeatedly praise some of the world’s most repressive rulers, at times seeming to praise them precisely for their ruthlessness.
The resolution, to be clear, was not solely focused on LGBT executions. It urged countries that have still not abolished the practice to make sure it is not imposed as punishment for “apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.”
The final vote at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, was 27 in favor of condemning abuse of the death penalty, 13 against and seven abstentions. We should all celebrate passage of the resolution in a UN body with a dismal track record. But the fact that the United States, the birthplace of the modern human rights movement, opposed a measure supported by every single Western and Eastern European country in the body, and every Latin American country (only Cuba abstained), and instead sided with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and other countries with troubling human rights records, made it a dark day for human rights.
The Trump administration, via State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, called the media coverage “misleading,” explaining that the United States voted against the resolution “because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty. …” She added that the United States “unequivocally condemns” the use of the death penalty “for conduct such as homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy.” The statement came in a State Department briefing, not in a recognized global platform such as the United Nations, where it might have had an impact.
Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been until now the more reasonable face to the world of a volatile US administration, also tweeted: “There was NO vote by USUN that supported the death penalty for gay people. We have always fought for justice for the LGBT community.”
This is not the first administration to face the dilemma of how to oppose human rights abuses without undercutting America’s continuing use of the death penalty. But the Trump administration could have abstained again. No one expects, at this juncture, that this administration will become a world leader, a champion of human rights, much less LGBT rights.
Trump promised to defend LGBT rights during the campaign, vowing he would do a better job than Hillary Clinton. By now, that’s a laughable claim, following Trump’s pronouncements on transgender Americans in the military, and his outspoken support for virulently homophobic politicians.
In the meantime, the death penalty is still the official punishment for gay relations in several countries. Iran, in particular, inflicts it with regularity. Photos of gay teenagers about to be publicly hanged surfaced in 2005, and Amnesty International has reported on and condemned other executions.
In Saudi Arabia, the penalty is stoning to death for married men or for non-Muslims who engage in same-sex conduct with Muslims. At least 10 countries allow execution for LGBT behavior, according to The Washington Post.
In countries where homosexuality does not qualify for the death penalty, being gay or transgender can put people at risk for harassment, arrest or even murder.
Ever since a gay rainbow flag was waved by someone during a concert last month in Cairo, Human Rights Watch reports that dozens of LGBT Egyptians and their supporters have been arrested on charges such as “inciting sexual deviancy” and “disrupting societal cohesion.” According to Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian media organization, one of those under arrest, Sarah Hegazy, told the prosecutor that she is not gay but believes “that every person is free, as long as they don’t harm others.”
The argument is being made by brave people facing prison terms, and by activists risking horrifying punishment. One can only hope that one day the US government, instead of siding with human rights abusers, will again become a leading voice in defense of human rights, including LGBT rights.