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Special envoy for gay rights needed

In a landmark speech in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries around the world to recognize that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” The speech dovetailed with President Obama’s memorandum directing all government agencies to “promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

With those moves, Obama signaled that he intended to be champion the concerns of LGBT people not just in the United States but also overseas. He proceeded to speak out forcefully against notorious anti-LGBT laws in both Uganda and Russia. Visiting St. Petersburg for the G-20 only a few months prior to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Obama met with LGBT activists and other civil society leaders, demonstrating to President Putin and other world leaders the United States regarded this issue as a priority.

{mosads}But now in his second term, the rise of ISIS is dominating the president’s foreign policy, nudging other issues aside. Even as persecution of LGBT people intensifies in various countries, including some allied with the United States—the issue is in danger of slipping off the radar. 

To ensure that it remains a priority, the president should appoint a special envoy tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the rights of LGBT people abroad. Such a move would elevate the stature of the issue within the government and convey to the world that the United States won’t allow discrimination and violence against LGBT people to go unchallenged.

If you’ve seen less news on persecution of LGBT people around the world in recent months, it’s not for a lack of it. To cite just a fraction of cases: a political leader in Kazakhstan has called for blood tests to identify gay people, a Jamaican activist has dropped his case against that country’s sodomy law because of death threats, and Lebanon security forces have tortured men with probes purportedly to determine if they engaged in anal sex.

Meanwhile several governments are attempting to codify bigotry with laws that sanction discrimination and pave the way for violence. Anti-LGBT legislation is moving forward in, among other countries, Kyrgyzstan, Gambia, Chad, and Indonesia.  Kyrgyzstan’s bill moved forward in Parliament just this week, and is the harshest Russian-style “propaganda” law in the region, calling for severe penalties – including jail time – for those found guilty of propagating non-traditional sexual relations​. If these bills become law, these states will join the ignominious list of that have clamped down on the human rights of LGBT people in recent years—a list that includes Russia, India, Brunei and Nigeria.

A special envoy would be especially important when the rights and lives of LGBT people are imperiled in countries allied with the United States. Too often, human rights take a backseat as the United States seeks cooperation on economic or strategic matters. For example, the U.S. coalition against ISIS includes governments, like Saudi Arabia’s, notoriously hostile to sexual minorities. Another partner, Egypt’s military government, has systematically cracked down on LGBT people, using “debauchery” and “public decency” laws to arrest dozens.

A challenge for the United States is that some foreign leaders claim that the notion of equality for LGBT people is an insidious import from the west. The special envoy—preferably someone with diplomatic experience—would cultivate partnerships with frontline LGBT activists, who can help shape U.S policy and ensure that it aligns with their needs. The goal is to provide help that actually helps. To that same end, the Special Envoy could build partnerships with government leaders around the world to underscore the fact that LGBT equality is a universal value, not a form of imperialism.

It is only natural that crises, security and otherwise, should consume the lion’s share of the administration’s attention. But there should be a consistent baseline focus on LGBT rights. A special envoy would help the President realize his goal of protecting LGBT people worldwide—and help secure his legacy as the president who made a focus on the human rights of LGBT people part of U.S. foreign policy.

Gaylord is Human Rights First’s advocacy counsel for LGBT rights.

Tags Hillary Clinton

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