Our Work for LGBT Rights Isn't Done

This post is drawn from Ambassador Samantha Power's remarks, as delivered, on "Making LGBT Rights Universally Respected Human Rights," in Washington DC on October 14, 2015.

Thank you, thank you so much, thank you.

So hello, everybody. I am so touched and honored to be here and particularly be with so many people that I have the chance to work with inside government and outside. I have accepted the award but I want to stress that the award goes to this President, to all of the people outside the U.S. Government who give us ideas for how we can move the ball down the field, all of my colleagues within U.S. Government who have taken such strides within their little slice of this - what can feel like a behemoth at times. And above all, I want to thank my team who are represented here. This is the USUN family, a portion of it, and these are the people who are just day in and day out just constantly thinking and asking "what more can we do, how can we drive this agenda further?"

Julie, I want to thank you and all of your fellow co-founders of the Council for Global Equality for having the vision to create this coalition - and for the noble work that you do and it does - all of you - every day. LGBT rights would be in a very different place today if it weren't for the work of people like Julie, who in 1991, if I have this right - as the twenty-something founder of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission - helped convince the State Department to issue its first cable instructing U.S. embassies worldwide to include sexual orientation in their reporting on human rights conditions impacting asylum seekers. 1991, that is truly impressive - that must have been fun - that must have been easy. This first - and so many other firsts brought about through the determination and the righteous, and audacious stubbornness of people in this room - made possible so many of the other firsts that we have seen of late.

I'd like to start my remarks by sharing a story of a young man named Subhi Nahas. Subhi, who is now 28 years old, was born in Idlib, Syria. And Subhi is gay. In Subhi's words, "It was never okay to be gay in Syria," but for Subhi it got much harder when the civil war broke out. The Assad regime, which had long criminalized homosexuality, began specifically targeting LGBT people - running anti-gay propaganda on TV, calling all dissidents homosexuals, and raiding the cafes and parks where LGBT people gathered. In 2012, Subhi was riding a bus to university, when suddenly soldiers boarded the bus and pulled him and about a dozen other young people off it. They took him to a house where they taunted him, insulted him for his sexuality, and assaulted him. He feared, of course, that he would be raped or killed. But, miraculously, they eventually let him go.

Months later, as if things couldn't get worse, the violent extremist group al Nusra seized Idlib, and promptly announced over mosque loudspeakers that they would cleanse the city of all engaged in sodomy. Subhi's life at home - in his own house - worsened. His father increasingly mocked the way Subhi dressed, talked, and walked. One night after a particularly heated argument, the father attacked Subhi, grabbing the back of his head and slamming it into the kitchen counter - an assault that sent this young man to the hospital. Then a gay friend of Subhi's was captured and tortured by men who forced him to name all the LGBT people he knew, including Subhi. Fearing for his life, Subhi fled Syria, made his way to an LGBT safe house in Lebanon, and eventually arrived in Turkey. Even there, he was unable to escape persecution. A boy he had known growing up had joined ISIL, and was telling people he planned to kill Subhi; and not long after, the former acquaintance called to threaten Subhi from a Turkish phone number.

Now I share this single experience, Subhi's experience, not only because it gives a glimpse of the profound terror that LGBT people continue to endure in many parts of the world, and it gives a testament to the many threats that emanate from prejudice that exist - abusive security forces, discriminatory laws, neighbors, family members. But I share this, above all, because in August, Subhi had the opportunity to describe his terror in the first-ever United Nations Security Council session dedicated to the theme of LGBT rights - and this is what Julie was mentioning. This session focused on the systematic targeting of LGBT individuals by ISIL - a group that, as you know, has made a practice of throwing gay men from the rooftops of buildings, and filming their executions, which they then disseminate on social media.

Putting LGBT rights at the heart of a Security Council session was genuinely important. It broke new ground - and as Edie Windsor and the state of Massachusetts have taught us, precedents do matter. But also, it allowed us to convey, in a single voice, and with the authority of the Security Council - which is the premiere global enforcement body for peace and security - it allowed us to convey that it is wrong to violate people's rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And this allowed us to pose a more fundamental question to the nations represented in that room: If we are horrified by ISIL singling out LGBT people for attacks and executions - and, of course, we should be - why shouldn't we be horrified when other rights of LGBT persons are violated? When, for example, police refuse to investigate attacks against LGBT persons; or when businesses, schools, or other institutions turn away LGBT persons because of who they are. While the gravity of these abuses obviously vary, all of them reject the inherent rights and dignity of LGBT people.

Another person who spoke in the Security Council meeting was Jessica Stern, who is here with us today. Jessica directs Outright, formerly the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and the organization which Julie founded. And as many of you will remember, in 2010, this same organization was denied accreditation by the UN NGO committee, which accredits civil society organizations to participate in UN meetings - normally not that big a deal. But for this organization, a big deal, and an application that was blocked. The country that led the effort against Jessica's organization's accreditation, Egypt, actually justified its objection by claiming that the organization's responses to questions in the accreditation process were not sufficiently "straight." Yet in five years, the collaboration between the Obama administration and many of you in the room ensured that the IGLHRC, now Outright, went from being excluded from the UN because it was an LGBT organization, to briefing the UN Security Council on what must be done to protect the rights of LGBT people. That matters.

These are just two of the important firsts that we have pressed for at the UN, with the aim of working LGBT rights into the way the institution - and, above all, the world - thinks about human rights. Let me briefly list a few others, in which many of you - including the UN LGBT core group member states, represented here by The Netherlands and by Belgium - played a key role.

Together we helped to secure the passage of the first-ever UN resolution on LGBT rights, at the UN Human Rights Council - this was on the issue of violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals. This and a subsequent resolution, in turn, led to the first-ever UN report documenting the state of LGBT rights around the world, in December 2011. The second report was just published this past June. Two years ago, during the UN General Assembly, we - again, together - held the first-ever Ministerial event on LGBT rights.

Now, these firsts may sound a little bureaucratic - and I will concede that I am a UN nerd, so this is my bread and butter. But I want to stress to you my conviction that they are not merely bureaucratic advances. The High Commissioner for Human Rights' Office, the two reports that they have produced have played a critical role in painstakingly detailing the widespread abuses faced by LGBT persons worldwide. The June 2015 report, the report that we just saw this summer, found that thousands of people have been killed or brutally injured worldwide because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The report concluded that "the overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment, and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions...often perpetrated with impunity." We need that, because there are countries who say it isn't so. So the documentation of these abuses matters; they become a tool in our toolkit to go back at governments and to try to get them to change. The fact that the UN is finally documenting these patterns of abuse - and calling for them to end - is profoundly important. And when heads of state and cabinet-level officials like Secretary Kerry show up at high-level UN meetings on LGBT rights, they are voting with their feet, they are saying no to a dozen meetings that they could be in at that very time - in the speed dating of the UN General Assembly - and they are showing that these rights matter to other governments, and they are showing to every single individual working for the U.S. government how they want to spend their time and what they stand for.

Just because we are succeeding in advancing LGBT rights though, in these ways, of course, does not mean we are not encountering deep-seated resistance, nor does it mean that we are not losing some battles. Even where we think we have succeeded in securing some kind of upgrade for LGBT rights, we see others working very aggressively to roll back those advances. And this even the case within the UN system, which in many ways is a kind of symptom, I think, of what goes on around the world - it's a shaper, but also a reflection. Consider what happened in March, when Russia led an effort to try to overturn Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's 2014 decision to extended benefits to the families of all people, including individuals in same-sex marriages. Now, given the unfortunately large number of countries in the UN that have anti-LGBT laws on their books - they've criminalized being gay - some argued that it would be impossible to win against Russia as they sought to pick this fight and roll back this administrative regulation. Some said it's going to require too big a lift, your bandwidth is only so large. And others argued that this regulation was only benefitting a relatively small number of families within the UN system, just a small number of UN staff. But we saw it differently, you saw it differently, and together we were able to make a profound difference. We recognized together - and this has got to be our motto every day, in everything we do: if we do not treat LGBT rights as human rights within the UN system - within its administrative regulations - how can the United Nations then tell member states to respect LGBT rights within their own borders? So we worked on winning that vote as methodically and aggressively as we have worked any vote since I was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the UN, or any I have witnessed, even from afar. Every one of our ambassadors was involved in phone banking countries large and small, from all corners of the globe. Our Assistant Secretaries, and here I'll credit Roberta Jacobson for Western Hemisphere, turned up in a very dramatic way, as did many countries for whom this was difficult - in the Caribbean. And ambassadors around the world, in capitals, went into overdrive. This was an all-system, full-court press. When countries were reluctant to take our calls or to signal where they stood - and for many this was a difficult conversation and an awkward conversation - we stalked them; the tried and true method for actually just ensuring that people could hear the case, for what this would mean to families, and what it would mean if Russia had succeeded. And the headline would've been, "UN Strips LGBT Couples of Benefits For Their Families." Imagine that headline. We used every tool in that toolkit I mentioned earlier. And when Russia started its effort, our assessment was that the vote really could go either way. In the end, just 42 countries, out of the 193 in the UN, voted with Russia. And as a result, to this day, all families of UN workers are entitled to equal benefits - as they should be.

My team - sitting right there - had a huge amount to do with it.

Of course, as you all know, the resistance we face in advancing these rights at the UN is, as I said earlier, a reflection of the resistance we face in promoting LGBT rights around the world. Or, to kind of alter a little bit the apt metaphor that Richard Holbrooke used to use - one of my mentors and predecessors as U.S. Ambassador to the UN - blaming the UN for hostility to LGBT rights is a lot like blaming Fenway Park for my beloved Red Sox not making the playoffs this year. It's a building, okay - it's going to reflect changes in it, positive and negative directions that are occurring in societies and countries around the world.

Consider the case of Zimbabwe, one of the most outspoken opponents of LGBT rights at the UN. As you may have heard, addressing the UN General Assembly a few weeks ago, Robert Mugabe proclaimed, "We are not gays!" - and he went on to criticize Western governments for attempting to "prescribe 'new rights' that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions and beliefs." The outburst was in character for a leader who has warned LGBT people in his country that they will be beheaded. So it is no surprise that thugs in Zimbabwe do not worry about being punished for attacking LGBT persons - as occurred in December 2014, when more than a dozen men attacked a gathering of LGBT activists with logs, iron bars, and beer bottles. My point is this: the countries like Zimbabwe that reject respecting LGBT rights at the UN - and even lead, and make themselves known for leading on an issue like rejecting rights - are almost always the same governments that are abusing LGBT rights at home.

And sadly, this is not an insignificant number of nations. More than 70 countries worldwide have legislation criminalizing same-sex sexual acts. Seventy. And we all agree that we cannot simply write off those countries and the LGBT people who live within them. We are not willing to accept an increasingly polarized world in which one set of countries moves toward greater respect for LGBT rights, while the other moves toward greater discrimination and criminalization of LGBT persons.

That understanding is implicit in this presidential memorandum that President Obama issued in December 2011, which made the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons a central part of the United States' efforts to promote human rights around the world - from fighting criminalization, to channeling foreign assistance, to responding swiftly and meaningfully to abuses of LGBT persons when they happen. It is about working LGBT rights into the DNA of our foreign policy and part of how we advance human dignity around the world - even when it is difficult or unpopular. Especially when it is difficult and unpopular.

That is what President Obama did when he traveled to Africa in July - a region where we have widespread opposition to LGBT rights. Approximately half of the countries in the world that criminalize same-sex relationships are in Africa. And even before the President left for the region, our policy and our leadership on this set of issues had produced some tension. In Nairobi, for example, a landlord reportedly expelled his gay tenants by saying, "Go wait for your Obama." At an anti-LGBT rally in the same city, protestors chanted, "We do not want Obama and Obama. We do not want Michelle and Michelle." In response to these and other protests, some said - even in the mainstream here in this country - that the President should not speak to LGBT issues at all, so as not to undermine our relationships with African governments or so as not to alienate their publics.

Yet here is how President Obama responded to a question on LGBT rights during a joint press conference with Kenya's President in that same city of Nairobi: the president said, "I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation ...[W]hen you start treating people differently - not because of any harm they're doing anybody, but because they're different - that's the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen. And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. And as an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law." That was our president.

That is our message out in the open and it is our message behind closed doors. It is the message we are sending in our votes and in the Council meetings we organize at the UN. It is the message that our newly designated Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT persons, Randy Berry, who is here today, carried on his recent trip to Central America, and it is the message he carries on all of his trips. And when Randy is out there - this is really important to understand - he has the full support of the U.S. government behind him. He hosts events at our embassies; he is introduced by our ambassadors; and he speaks before our flag.

Let me conclude. The same day that President Obama announced his international LGBT presidential memorandum of 2011, I joined a White House conference call with advocates and civil society groups. Some of you, I think, were probably on that call. And one woman spoke up on the call in a way I will never forget. She identified herself as a lesbian mother of two, and she said that until the United States started making its push on LGBT rights internationally, she hadn't realized how claustrophobic she had been feeling, how confined she felt within America's borders. Yes, she said, we are making real progress here in the U.S. - not enough, of course we know, but real progress. And yet, for her, knowing that there were parts of the world where she might be mocked or even attacked for walking around holding hands with her partner, or where the two of them couldn't walk with their kids - meant that they would never feel free like their straight counterparts. It meant that true equality would forever remain elusive.

And I think what she was saying goes to the very heart of what we mean when we talk about striving for the universality of human rights - of all human rights. Of course, we advocate for the rights of LGBT persons in the Zimbabwes and the Syrias of the world in order to defend and help the people who face the most imminent and grave persecution for their sexual or gender identity. [Inaudible] But we are also striving to create respect for LGBT rights in those countries because we are not willing to accept a world where basic human rights can only be enjoyed in constricted places - whether that place is a home or a neighborhood or a state or a country. There can't be "No Go Zones" for these rights to be real.

Two members of my team are here with me today. One is technically no longer a member of my team - he recently moved to the National Security Council, so as to lighten his work load. Curtis Ried is his name. The other, a member of my executive team, Megan Koilparampil, came from New York for this lunch. Both are superlative public servants, embodying the dedication, judgment, and smarts we dream about representing us in our government. They are the best - they are the best of government.

And yet, were we to be traveling somewhere else today - were we to be traveling to scores of countries around the world - these two colleagues of mine would be at real risk of being discriminated against because of who they are. That is not acceptable for LGBT people living in those countries, but it is also not acceptable for LGBT people in this country - or for any American citizen who cares about human rights, for that matter. And our work will not be done until that changes - until LGBT rights are universal human rights. We know it will take time, but we take it as our privilege to shrink that time, just as so many of you have done in this country. And every day we take it as our privilege to make those rights more real for just a few more people - if that's all that happens, that's still a good day. LGBT rights are human rights, human rights are LGBT rights, and human rights must be universal rights. Thank you.