LGBT Rights: American Advocacy at the United Nations

Peter Dunne

Much has, and will, be said about Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks on LGBT rights, and the accompanying memorandum which President Obama released on Tuesday morning. However, I think that there are, at this stage, a few points worthy of particular note.

First, in addition to the humility with which the Secretary of State addressed America’s own record on LGBT rights, she also acknowledged that it is the LGBT activists, those actually on the ground in the Global South, who ultimately must lead the way. While Governments and other straight allies are vital to the success of any LGBT rights movement, they cannot be the ones who drive reform.

These sentiments are particularly important given the announcement by David Cameron that the United Kingdom would begin to condition aid to majority world countries on the repeal of anti-gay and transgender laws. Mr. Cameron’s plan, while no doubt developed with good intentions, disregards the will, advice and strategy of LGBT activists in the global south. Rather than being a means of achieving change, aid conditionality merely adds to the problems which advocates must address. It plays into the idea that homosexuality is an enforced ‘western concept’, creates the perception that the LGBT community are a cause of economic hardship and leads to resentment among other human rights activists. Aid conditionality can also directly disadvantage gay individuals, who have an already restricted access to services and thus are disproportionately affected when there is a reduction in foreign aid.

In his memorandum, President Obama urges diplomats to take all actions necessary to ensure respect for LGBT rights. This should not include aid conditionality. Rather, diplomats should seek alternative methods, ideally in consultation with local activists and non-governmental organizations. One suggestion, which was mentioned at LGBT Side Event in New York City this week is that while not conditioning aid on LGBT rights, foreign aid donors may nonetheless reward those countries who effectively enact protections for, or remove discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. In this way, LGBT people cannot be accused of ‘depriving’ majority world countries of important aid, while minority world countries can offer a real incentive for States to take a progressive stance on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity.


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