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In the International Sphere

Far from conferences and Cairo, another important thing happened in 1994. The U.N. Human Rights Committee, in its landmark decision in Toonen v. Australia, held that so-called “sodomy laws”—laws criminalizing consensual homosexual conduct—violated standards of privacy and equality, and that “sexual orientation” was a status protected against discrimination by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

This has been the single most important U.N. move to affirm equality based on sexual orientation. It has supported the grassroots struggles of countless activists. Yet since that year, the United Nations has increasingly become a battlefield in wars over “culture” and sexuality.

U.N. conferences such as the Beijing World Conference on Women; General Assembly Special Sessions such as the 2001 meeting on HIV/AIDS or the 2002 gathering on children; and increasingly the annual meetings of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights have been sidetracked or taken over by fierce contests over questions of sexuality.  In the process, an odd alliance has emerged. It brings together the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); the Holy See (which, though not recognized as a state, occupies observer status at the United Nations); and a group of mostly U.S.-based NGOs, some identifying as Catholic, some rooted in evangelical Protestantism or Mormonism, all with domestic records of combating reproductive rights and sexual rights. Under the Bush administration, the latter have had sometimes tacit and sometimes overt backing from their government.28

The alliance merits some comment. Its members work together closely, visibly planning strategy in tandem at some sessions. Yet their opportunistic transcendence of the conflicting confessional, political, and social traditions they represent boldly defies any contention that “cultures” are or should be self-contained, insulated, or incapable of negotiating across differences. They model the diversity they deny. At various venues the members of the alliance have all claimed to be defending the “traditional family,” as if unaware of the different entities the term might describe in Arizona and Qatar. The irony of finding present and former officials, including diplomats, from powerful OIC countries serving on advisory boards to U.S. NGOs identified with the “Christian right” is profound. To add to the irony, many of the U.S. NGOs now devoting time and resources to U.N. advocacy oppose the U.N. and all international human rights mechanisms. One highly prominent U.S. advocate said in 2000, “Should the U.S. get out of the U.N.? That’s a question I always steer clear of, principally because to participate in the U.N. in the way that I do, you must at least have a veneer of supporting the U.N.”29

The goals that unite them are simple to sum up: deleting sexuality. They fight to roll back the affirmations of reproductive and sexual rights in the Cairo and Beijing Platforms for Action; to restrict or eliminate mentions of family planning, sexuality education, reproductive rights, and related issues; and to keep language on sexuality, sexual rights, or sexual orientation out of any U.N. documents, ever.

“Sexual orientation” has been a key issue for these opponents, both in its own right and as a wedge to attract the votes of other countries from the developing world. One writer comments that religious and socially conservative groups in the U.S. are “turning to the developing world as an innocent, unspoiled frontier, which might possibly be rescued from a morally bankrupt West.”30 At the Beijing conference in 1995, a flyer claiming to be from unnamed, conservative women from “Developed Countries” offered to “apologize to people from the less developed world … [for the West’s] direct attack on the values, cultures, traditions and religious beliefs of the vast majority of the world’s peoples.”31 At Beijing +5 (the General Assembly session five years after the World Conference on Women) a similar anonymous flyer courted developing states, blaming conference delays on perversions: “If the West would stop pushing homosexual and abortion ‘rights’ on unwilling countries, the document would be done. Don’t blame the developing countries with the courage to defend their values and their right to self-government!” 32

More is involved than flyers. The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people simply appear an easy sacrifice in the eyes of this alliance. The 2001 U.N. Special Session on HIV/AIDS saw a furious (and ultimately successful) campaign to rid the final document of specific references to vulnerable groups, including men who have sex with men, drug users, and sex workers. OIC states fought to prevent the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission from addressing a panel on human rights—an issue which finally came to a General Assembly vote (where the OIC narrowly lost).

Debates around sexual orientation reached new intensity in 2003 and 2004, at the annual meetings of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In 2003, Brazil introduced a resolution on “Human Rights and Sexual Orientation,” which expressed “deep concern” at “violations of human rights all over the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation.” The resolution came with little warning; few NGOs had a chance to mobilize fully to support it that year. It met with frenzied opposition, though, from some Commission members and from conservative NGOs, above all in the United States. Pakistan, in an aide-memoire on behalf of the OIC, stated:

The resolution has been built on an “assumption” “for the purposes of the resolution” that the concept [of sexual orientation] encompasses various manifestations of sexual behaviour. The list could always be expanded to include heinous activities like pedophilia and other errant behaviour. … The draft resolution directly contradicts the tenets of Islam and other religions. Its adoption would be considered as a direct insult to the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world.33

This language imitated that of Christian-based NGOs in the United States, who had quickly circulated misinformation about the key term’s meaning—suggesting that any of the sexual disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) could qualify as a “sexual orientation.” Thus, they claimed, “22 different ‘sexual orientations’” could be protected by the resolution, including bestiality or pedophilia. They warned the resolution would offer “special human rights (rather than equal human rights),” calling it “infamous,” “dangerous,” and, worst of all, likely to “pave the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage across the world.”34

As the lobbyists well knew, “sexual orientation”—as understood in ordinary speech as well as in repeated references in official U.N. documents—describes whether a person’s sexual and emotional desires are directed primarily to people of the same or opposite sex, or to both. It has nothing to do with the conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.35 Yet the distortion of language and medical fact, the conflation of human rights principles with “protecting bestiality,” had their effect. In a chaotic session, the resolution narrowly lost on a procedural question—by two votes—but was postponed until the following year. 2004 saw unprecedented global mobilization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists, and a sweeping coalition of other human rights groups, to support the measure. However, OIC countries applied equally unprecedented pressure, threatening to quash possible trade relations with Brazil.  Sexuality at the United Nations had finally graduated to the kind of issue that economic ties could hang on. Brazil postponed the resolution again. Its future fate is unknown.

In a further sign of how the attacks on sexuality widen into attacks on general rights standards, in 2004 Egypt also spearheaded a battle by the OIC to remove “sexual orientation” from a crucial Commission resolution on extrajudicial executions. Repeatedly in the past, the same opponents had sought to undermine the work of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, whose reports drew attention to state-condoned or state-sponsored murders in many of their countries. They had used her work on murders of “sexual minorities” to discredit her work on honor killings of women, implying the second led to the first. And they used both to try to dismantle her mandate. This year, they made it clear they would be happy to kill the resolution—one basic to the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms—if it condemned killings of lesbians and gay men. 

Although the move was defeated, the story here returns again to Cairo: for it was evident that Egypt was driven in part by the desire to keep unwanted U.N. attention away from its violent domestic crackdown on gay men. The local backlash and the international one meet.

[28] On reproductive-rights issues at the U.N. level, the Bush administration has played an open and militant hand.  When sexual orientation has arisen, it has been quieter—with indications that it directs NGOs to do its work for it.

[29] Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), quoted in Jennifer Butler, “New Sheriff in Town’: The Christian Right nears major victory at the United Nations,” Public Eye, vol. 16, no. 2 (Winter/Spring 2002).

[30] Jennifer Butler, “For Faith and Family: Christian Right Advocacy at the United Nations,” Public Eye, vol. 9, no. 2/3, p. 9.

[31] Cited in Cynthia Rothschild and Scott  Long, Written Out: How Sexuality Is Used to Attack Women’s Organizing, a report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, 2000, pp. 63-64.

[32] Flyer on file with Human Rights Watch.

[33] Copy on file at Human Rights Watch.

[34] See Lynn Allred, “Thwarting the Anti-Family Agenda: An Eyewitness Account of the Commission on Human Rights,” Meridian Magazine, online at, retrieved November 11, 2004.  Material about the “22 sexual orientations” was distributed at the 2003 and 2004 Commission sessions.

[35] The DSM, of course, actually declares that homosexuality is not a disorder.

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