Human Rights Fail

On November 16th, 2010 the United Nations passed a resolution on Arbitrary Executions.  The United States abstained from voting on this resolution and as a result some US citizens are giving them props.  You may be surprised, however, at from whom these props are coming.

One might expect praise from those who argue that the very type of acts this resolution label as arbitrary executions are necessary tactics the U.S.A. needs to win the war on terror (explaining why we’ve so freely used them in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq).  But this is not the source of the praise.

One might also expect praise from those who think a UN resolution like this comes a bit too close to trying to regulate capital punishment which is still legal in 34 states.  Nope. Advocates in this camp are probably used to the US abstaining from voting on this particular resolution since it has been around for many years and never gotten the U.S.A. vote.

Instead the publicity of the U.S.A.’s decision (or is it indecision?) has come from advocates from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Questioning (LGBTQIQ) groups.  You see, in an historical move, the UN voted to remove sexual orientation from the resolution opening the door for the UN ignore cases of extra-judicial executions of LGBQ individuals. Or, as many-a-headline is now stating, the “UN votes to allow extra-judicial executions of Gays and Lesbians.”

In their statement explaining the abstention, the U.S. Advisor pointed specifically to the removal of language around sexual orientation as a point of concern saying:

“At the outset, let me say that the United States strongly agrees with and appreciates the cosponsors’ efforts to retain language specifically condemning ESAs targeting vulnerable groups, particularly members of the LGBT community, and we were dismayed that this reference could not survive an unfriendly amendment.”[1]

There are two questions this situation raises for me:

  1. Does the U.S.A. actually deserve props for standing up for the basic human rights of LGBTQIQ individuals?
  2. What’s up with the UN that would allow this to happen?

On the first question:

At first I wanted to jump up and give my country’s UN reps a high-five and say “way to go!” In a country that is still very divided politically over issues of “same” sex marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it seemed bold and impressive that our UN reps would even mention let alone be disappointed that language protecting the rights of LGBTQIQ (I use the full acronym despite gender-identity not being included in the resolution) folks.

But that got me to thinking—do they really deserve it?  The whole critique of the resolution is not that the UN will actually go out and start committing arbitrary executions of gay and lesbian people nor that they will mandate them.  The problem is not action; it is inaction.  The sin of omission, if you will.  The UN can now do nothing and that is the problem.  The U.S.A. voted against the amendment but abstained from voting on the resolution. Not to go overly utilitarian or anything, but, at the end of the day the resolution passed without the either the protection for LGBTQIQ folks or U.S.A.’s support.

Abstaining from voting on the resolution was hardly an act of advocacy for the gay, lesbian, and bisexual people world-wide.  If the U.S.A. had found a way to rally those opposed to removing language of sexual orientation to the point of not being able to move on the resolution until it was put back in that would have been an act of advocacy.  This, well, this was an act of self-interest with a shout out to queer folks as an added bonus.

So, props to the U.S.?  Well done, team!  You did. . .nothing. Not only did you not secure rights for LGBTQIQ against you secured rights for no-one.

On the second question:

Some analysis link the removal of the language around sexual orientation to an international debate between “cultural relativists” and “universalist” defining the former as those who think values and norms are culturally specific and each culture has the right to define them accordingly and the latter as those who place human rights over culture.[2] In addition to this being a false dichotomy based on overly-simplistic definitions, it also hides two important things.

First, the history and identity of the United Nations is intertwined with the history of human rights. Any time the “but our culture says it is wrong” card is pulled out to remove rights within UN policy we should take that as a red flag.  This move calls us to ask: What is really going on?

For instance, in this case it raises questions of the role of religious fundamentalism in shaping policies and positions.  I am not naïve enough to think religion hasn’t ever and never will shape international policies.  Quite the contrary, religion is a central part of the conversation and given its role in shaping morality and norms it probably needs to be.

The problem is that it is not always named.  So, lets name it. On the issue of sexual orientation we absolutely must look at the role of religion and ask questions like: does the right to religious expression trump the basic human right to life?

For help answering that, we can go back to Alan Gewirth, an American philosopher, who offered a three-level hierarchy of rights that we can view as a pyramid.  At the bottom of the pyramid are the basic rights we are afforded and need simply to be human.  This is where we find things like the right to life—the very right being addressed in the resolution on arbitrary executions.  The next level, the non-subtractive, consists of those things necessary for an individual to perform actions as purposive agents.  As the name suggests, these objects cannot, or at least ought not, be removed.  Finally, at the top of the hierarchy is the category of additive.  Here we find those things which provide an individual with the ability to increase the level of purpose fulfillment. Gewirth and many others would most likely place religion in the last level: the additive. As a scholar of religion, I would toy with the question of whether it belonged in the second or the third level.  The point is—the right to life is a very basic right afforded to all simply by being human.[3]

What I’m trying to say is that we can have conversations late into the night about how you believe God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve and I can both whole-heartedly disagree with you AND respect your right to believe it. As should the UN. But protecting someone who is LGBTQIQ from arbitrary execution is more basic than protecting anyone’s right to condemn them on religious or other ideological grounds.

Second, the reason this story has been picked up in the Queer press is that it brings to the surface the way homophobia has been institutionalized even on the international level. Which dishearteningly raises the question:

If even the United Nations refuses to protect the basic human rights of the LGBTQIQ communities where does that leave them?


To see how countris voted on the sexual orientation amendment check out:

To read the full US explanation of their vote on the resolution go to:


One response to “Human Rights Fail

  • Brian

    I meant to comment on this weeks ago. Thanks for writing this. All I have to say is that, based on the countries listed in your IGLHRC link, if I had to decide to be sent to a random country in either the “favor to remove” list or the “oppose to remove” list the answer would be very fast. The countries in favor of removal are mostly places I would not want to go!

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