Obama Introduces Strong Support for International LGBT Rights

Memo: Countries’ policies will affect foreign aid

President Obama introduced new rules to protect gays and lesbians on Tuesday in a memo to agencies engaged in foreign policy and aid overseas.

The Departments of State, the Treasury, Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and trade agencies, will be required to consider nations’ record of LGBT rights when allocating aid or developing diplomatic ties.

“I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world—whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT celebrations, or killing men, women and children for their perceived sexual orientation,” Obama announced. “Under my Administration, agencies engaged abroad have already begun taking action to promote the fundamental human rights of LGBT persons everywhere. Our deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people is strengthened when we as the United States bring our tools to bear to vigorously advance this goal.”

The rules include the following provisions for agencies to:

  • Effectively combat the criminalization by foreign governments of LGBT status or conduct
  • Ensure that LGBT refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum; and implement additional training for government personnel
  • Engage with foreign governments, citizens, civil society and private sector to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons
  • Respond swiftly to serious incidents that threaten the rights of LGBT persons abroad
  • Report annually on their progress in advancing these goals.

Though U.S. agencies have long taken into account basic human rights records of countries seeking assistance, today’s memo marks the first time that LGBT rights, explicitly, have been named as a mitigating factor in such decisions. The new rules are likely to have a meaningful impact in developing countries with abysmal records of LGBT human rights.

Uganda, for example, is set to receive more than 480 million dollars in foreign aid in Fiscal Year 2011, according to USAID, yet the small African country boasts some of the world’s most brutal policies against LGBT people. Homosexuality is outlawed; the media targets openly gay activists for violence; and the Ugandan parliament this year reconsidered a bill that expanded the criminalization of same-sex behavior and enhanced the penalty for offenses from 14 years’ imprisonment to death. The new strategy could force such countries to relax their anti-gay policies in exchange for foreign assistance.

In a speech in advance of Human Rights Day (December 10), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the government’s commitment. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Rights are not conferred by governments; they are the birthright of all people,” she said. In the 63 years since the passage of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “many racist laws have been repealed. Legal and social practices that relegated women to second class status have been abolished. In most cases, this progress was not easily won.”

“There is still much more to be done to secure that commitment for [LGBT] people. Even though progress is not easy, we cannot delay acting,” she said. “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

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