A Year in Review: Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Globally

Special Envoy Barry speaks at a press conference at the United Nations in Geneva, following meetings during the UN Human Rights Council. [State Department photo]
Special Envoy Barry speaks at a press conference at the United Nations in Geneva, following meetings during the UN Human Rights Council. [State Department photo]
This article was originally published on April 20, 2016 on blogs.state.gov by Randy Berry, U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons at the U.S. Department of State.

Last week, April 13 marked my one-year anniversary as Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. As the first Special Envoy appointed by President Obama and Secretary Kerry, it has been my distinct honor and privilege to serve in this position.

Almost as soon as I began this job, I began traveling –- both to learn firsthand from communities, from advocates, and from LGBTI people about their most pressing human rights concerns, as well as to assess what we as the U.S. government could do to address those concerns. I traveled to 42 countries from every region of the world, and I’ve been deeply inspired on these visits, mainly in my meetings with members of civil society who courageously work every day to improve the human rights of the LGBTI community in some of the most repressive environments. It has been a remarkable year. I’ve had challenging conversations with foreign government officials on discriminatory legislation targeting the community, and the stigma and violence that LGBTI persons endure. Through my travels, and together with my colleagues at our embassies and consulates, we continue to demonstrate our country’s unwavering commitment to advance the human rights of all people, including LGBTI people, not just here at home but abroad as well.

Over the past year, I have been proud to recognize the leadership of a diverse set of governments stepping up to support LGBTI rights from different parts of the world. One can see global leadership in the Global Equality Fund, a multi-stakeholder fund to support civil society organizations to advance LGBTI rights. Argentina became the 12th Partner Government of the Global Equality Fund following President Obama’s recent visit to that country. Argentina follows Uruguay, and Chile, and we expect other governments, including from Asia, to join soon as well.

This year has also been about cementing our relationships with faith communities and the business sector. Here our goal is to support allies from diverse sectors to advance messages of inclusion, diversity, non-violence, and tolerance for all. Following the Pope’s visit to the United States, I met with the Holy See’s Secretariat of State at the Vatican in November 2015. This high-level engagement with the Vatican is part of an ongoing effort to amplify the voices of religious communities that are supportive of non-violence and tolerance for all.

In spite of ongoing challenges, we’ve seen a lot of positive news this year from different parts of the world — and this is why the moment we are in right now is so vitally important. Many Latin American and Asian governments are making progress. Uruguay, together with the Netherlands, will soon co-host a major LGBTI rights and development conference in Montevideo. Vietnam revised its civil code in 2015 to make it easier for transgender persons to alter their legal identity. Nepal stands out for its new constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In Africa, Mozambique decriminalized consensual, adult same-sex behavior last year– and a court in Botswana a few months ago affirmed the right of an LGBT association to register as a formal organization.

Despite these positive developments, we’ve also seen how governments use LGBTI rights as a political wedge to bolster their own positions – in contexts such as Nigeria and Russia, where recently passed draconian laws further undermine human rights for all people, not just LGBTI individuals. We’ve seen how violence tears at the fabric of communities –- and we know that LGBTI people in many contexts flee their homes and countries -– seeking safe refuge here, and in other countries. We’ve seen this violence flare in the Middle East, where LGBTI persons have been subject to abuse by ISIS. Nearly 80 countries continue to criminalize LGBTI status or conduct, and this includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, which still impose the death penalty for LGBTI persons. Our task moving forward will be to use the positive momentum and goodwill of so many to overcome these persistent challenges, and more specifically to realize a world that is more just, more fair, and that enables all citizens to live freely and without fear of harm, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As we deepen our relationships with governments, with civil society organizations, and with the business and faith communities, we will focus on three priority areas with the hope of achieving real impact:

  • First, we will redouble our effort to reduce violence targeting LGBTI persons, and again remembering the acute experiences of discrimination and violence faced by transgender persons.
  • Secondly, we will work to institutionalize our relationship with businesses, with the goal of building a standing forum where businesses and government can work together to advance values of non-discrimination.
  • We will work to strengthen the global consensus and multilateral coalitions in support of the human rights of LGBTI people.
  • Finally, we will continue to institutionalize LGBTI issues with the work of the State Department, enabling all of the relevant tools to be used to maximize our impact going forward.

I want to emphasize how much we are a part of a global movement –- we as the United States are one player, amongst many. We recognize that our efforts must be guided by the work of civil society organizations that push for social change in their own contexts. I am confident that our collective efforts will help support a world in which everyone is afforded the dignity, the freedom and the equality they rightfully deserve.

About the Author: @RandyBerry and @State_DRL on Twitter for more on how the State Department advances human rights.