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US Leadership to Advance Equality for LGBT People Abroad

In honor of Human Rights Week, Samantha Power explains how advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people around the world is central to, not separate from, our comprehensive human rights agenda.

During Human Rights Week, we reaffirm our commitment to upholding human rights and human dignity at home and abroad, and we recognize the need to build a world in which everyone can pursue their dreams free from violence and discrimination.

Last week at the Human Rights First summit, I described how advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people around the world is central to, not separate from, our comprehensive human rights agenda. With LGBT people facing death, violence, persecution, and discrimination around the world, the stakes could not be higher. Seventy-eight countries have laws that criminalize consensual same-sex acts between adults, resulting in unchecked human rights abuses and exploitation by police, security officials and private citizens. In at least 5 countries, the death penalty can be applied for being gay. Even where being LGBT is not a crime, violence by state and non-state actors alike often goes unpunished and LGBT communities live in fear and isolation.

As President Obama has said, “no one should be harmed because of who they are or who they love”. To ensure a comprehensive U.S. response to these threats, one year ago, President Obama issued the first ever Presidential Memorandum to advance the human rights of LGBT persons, requiring all U.S. agencies engaged abroad to “ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons,” and to report annually on their progress.

We are continuing to lead a government-wide effort to oversee implementation of the Presidential Memorandum and ensure effective coordination across different agencies and offices. Highlights from progress made across the U.S. Government include:

Strengthening U.S. Government capacity:

  • Departments and agencies are establishing new coordination mechanisms, strengthening training of key personnel, and raising internal awareness among staff and partners about LGBT issues. Secretary of State Clinton and USAID Administrator Shah have instructed U.S. embassies and USAID missions to meet regularly with the LGBT community in their host countries. The Department of State has also established a taskforce that meets monthly to oversee the implementation of its LGBT strategy, created and distributed a resource toolkit to all embassies, and established a rapid response mechanism to address emerging crises in different countries. USAID has established a new LGBT senior coordinator position and internal task force, developed e-tools including an LGBT resource page and internal listserv, and directed all USAID missions to appoint a focal point to follow LGBT issues.
  • The Peace Corps is implementing LGBT training sessions for Volunteers and staff to raise awareness about the unique challenges faced by local LGBT populations as well as LGBT Peace Corps Volunteers in the field. In 2012, the Peace Corps also facilitated a regional workshop to help overseas posts foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for LGBT Volunteers and staff.

Leveraging U.S. Foreign Assistance to Protect LGBT People from Violence and Discrimination and Respond to Urgent Crises:

  • Building on Secretary Clinton’s historic speech the same day the Presidential Memorandum was released, State launched the Global Equality Fund which -- in more than 20 countries worldwide -- supports emerging civil society organizations in advancing equality and protection for LGBT persons through increasing access to justice, supporting law reform, protecting individuals from violence and bolstering local advocacy efforts. Through its emergency response programs, the Fund has also provided emergency assistance so that more than 50 LGBT advocates could address their immediate protection needs. USAID has established a new Global Development Partnership to promote LGBT inclusion, build capacity of LGBT civil society and leaders, and conduct new research on the economic development costs of discrimination against LGBT people. USAID’s “Being LGBT in Asia” study, which includes six priority countries, provides much needed research on the socio-economic reality of LGBT communities. USAID missions including in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Ukraine are elevating awareness and training on LGBT issues, and promoting non-discrimination and inclusion of LGBT communities within their missions’ broader programs, and sharing those best practices across the agency.
  • State and USAID are also working to improve program coordination and exchange best practices with other donors. USAID hosted the first high-level meeting with other development agencies during the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee meeting in December 2012.
  •  As stated in the PEPFAR Blueprint for an AIDS-free Generation and guidance on HIV prevention for men who have sex with men (MSM), the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator continues to work with partner countries to prioritize and scale-up services for MSM.  MSM populations often experience discrimination, stigma, and homophobia, and concentrated epidemics of HIV among MSM in developing countries are severe. Recognizing the disproportionate HIV burden facing MSM in many countries, PEPFAR works to strengthen and expand HIV prevention for MSM and their partners and to improve MSM’s ability to access HIV care and treatment. This work includes a focus on reducing stigma and discrimination experienced by MSM, promoting the human rights of MSM, and helping ensure that HIV/AIDS programs are conducted in a manner that does not put MSM at risk for discrimination, violence, arrest or prosecution.

Protecting LGBT Refugees and Asylum Seekers:

  • State has continued to implement its comprehensive LGBT refugee protection strategy in coordination with the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS). State is funding research on threats facing LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, supporting NGOs that work with LGBT survivors of violence, and strengthening the capacity of UNHCR and other non-government partners. State has enhanced coordinationwith DHS and other resettlement partners to expedite refugee processing for particularly vulnerable applicants, including LGBT individuals.  State and DHS will continue to work to strengthen U.S. capacity to offer expedited protection to refugees in need.
  • DHS' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) created an expanded and stand-alone lesson module, Guidance for Adjudicating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Refugee and Asylum Claims. USCIS made this expanded training on LGBT issues mandatory for all officers adjudicating refugee and asylum claims, integrated it into basic training for all new officers, and engaged in substantial stakeholder outreach on the module. Refugees being resettled to the United States are also benefiting from increased training and awareness for resettlement personnel, including through the creation of an HHS supported guide to resettling LGBT refugees and those granted asylum.
  • DHS’ U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun deploying a new automated risk assessment instrument which directs officers to consider special vulnerabilities, including sexual orientation and gender identity, when making custody and classification decisions in the immigrant detention context. Additionally, this month Secretary Napolitano announced that DHS has proposed standards for immigration detention and holding facilities for the detection, prevention, and reduction of sexual abuse to protect the health and safety of individuals in DHS confinement facilities. Earlier this year, ICE announced that it had issued a revision of its national detention standards explicitly prohibiting sexual abuse and prohibiting discrimination or discipline on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Lastly, at Secretary Napolitano’s direction, ICE issued written guidance clarifying that agency personnel should consider a person’s longstanding, same-sex partnership with a U.S. Citizen as a positive factor when exercising their discretion for individuals in removal proceedings.

Advancing International Norms through Multilateral Engagement:

  • Throughout the United Nations system and in other multilateral forums, the United States has raised the profile of LGBT issues broadly, building on the first-ever UN resolution on the human rights of LGBT people at the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. This has included engagement in bodies as diverse as UNICEF, UNESCO, the UN NGO Committee,UN Women, and the Organization of American States. This fall, at the UN General Assembly, the U.S.successfully led effortsto insert language into a UN resolution emphasizing that people should not be killed based on their sexual orientation orgender identity.
  • At the 2012 annual World Health Assembly (WHA), Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius led a historic panel discussion, co-sponsored by Brazil, Norway, South Africa and Thailand, entitled Breaking Down Barriers: Addressing Stigma and Discrimination in Health Care for LGBT Persons.  Building on momentum from the discussion,HHS successfully petitioned for this issue to be officially addressed at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) May 2013 Executive Board meeting, which is the next step in achieving our ultimate goal in 2014 of the first official WHO resolution promoting access to health care for LGBT people.  Prior to the May 2013 Executive Board discussion, WHO will also publish a report on the health of LGBT persons. 

Promoting Nondiscrimination and Combating Criminalization of LGBT Status:

  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) has partnered with the Department of State to help countries such as Honduras— where President Obama called on the government to address impunity for violence against LGBT persons—investigate and prosecute LGBT hate crimes. DOJ is working to integrate LGBT issues in all of its international efforts, including the International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEA) and the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). From June 13-15, 2012, DOJ’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training (OPDAT) along with the US Embassy in Tirana hosted the first USG-sponsored Regional LGBT Workshop. Over 100 participants from 18 countries participated, including U.S. officers and activists from Italy, Ukraine, Belgium, and Turkey, to name just a few.  More recently, OPDAT assisted the Philippine Judicial Academy in two roundtable discussions on emerging issues facing LGBT persons. Participants -- including judges, Ministry of Justice officials and LGBT NGOs -- learned techniques for handling cases involving violations against the civil rights of LGBT persons. DOJ is planning to review and expand its assistance to make further progress in training law enforcement and judiciaries in target countries.
  • State has expanded public diplomacy and outreach efforts across the globe: nearly 90 embassies participated in Pride Week events this summer, with posts in Kenya, Laos, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, among others, holding first-time LGBT events. State’s International Visitors Leadership Program is also playing a key role in ensuring LGBT leaders from other countries are able to learn from the experience of the LGBT movement in the United States, including learning about the U.S. experience in combating hate crimes.  This fall, Judy and Dennis Shepard, the parents of slain youth Matthew Shepard and prominent advocates for LGBT tolerance, conducted a wide-ranging State Department-supported outreach tour in Europe on LGBT rights and the promotion of tolerance.
  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has made clear that protecting the human rights of all people, including LGBT persons, is part of the overall human rights and governance criteria on which countries will be assessed for compact eligibility.  MCC has been very explicit in communicating with governments that removing anti-LGBT laws is an important factor in assessing human rights and governance performance.  
  • The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) has asked each of the U.S. Executive Directors of the multilateral development banks (MDBs) including the World Bank to raise LGBT concerns to a policy level and increase awareness of the issue. Treasury is also urging the MDBs to make effective use of all existing policies and instruments so that all individuals, including LGBT persons, can enjoy non-discriminatory access to the assistance that MDBs provide. This includes identifying and strengthening the MDBs’ existing non-discrimination safeguards to help ensure LGBT persons are not discriminated against in MDB funded activities.
  • The Department of Commerce (Commerce) and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) are considering LGBT concerns, for instance, in the context of the human rights eligibility requirement in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act and through workplace anti-discrimination programs under the labor cooperation provisions of trade agreements. Commerce is also pursuing new lines of effort to engage the private sector in expanding non-discrimination and tolerance in other countries, recognizing that hostility to LGBT employees creates an adverse business climate that can hinder economic growth and competitiveness. In response to the Presidential Memorandum, the Department of Defense is also developing proposals to integrate attention to LGBT human rights abuses in ongoing DOD partnerships and initiatives.

We will continue to build on this foundation to identify new opportunities to advance and protect the human rights of LGBT persons. We welcome the partnership of many other governments as well as non-governmental and multilateral partners in this effort, from civil society organizations to faith communities. When the International AIDS Conference returned to the United States in July for the first time in 22 years— thanks to President Obama concluding a successful bipartisan effort to end the entry ban on persons living with HIV— the White House hosted a roundtable discussion with LGBT advocates from throughout the world. Their recommendations and feedback continue to shape our work. And just last week, on the one-year anniversary of the Presidential Memorandum, I was pleased to host the Council for Global Equality for a discussion of the many challenges ahead. We look forward to continued dialogue in the months and years to come. 

We all have a stake in this: when laws such as those proposed in Uganda strip away the right to life, privacy and freedom of expression and association for the LGBT community, everyone’s fundamental freedoms are threatened. As we move forward with this work, we stand in solidarity with the many brave LGBT activists around the world - from Albania to Zimbabwe - who put their lives on the line every day. We are inspired, and we are listening.


Samantha Power is the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council.