Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Ahead of Information Summit, U.N. Should Examine Itself (July 28, 2003)
"At headquarters, information specialists are constrained by the refusal of member nations to invest in bringing the United Nations fully into the age of electronic media."
Academic Council on U.N. System Leaves U.S. for Canada (July 21, 2003)
"The United States may be the biggest world power, but it is not much of an
Guess Who's Sustaining Iraq (July 14, 2003)
"Nine U.N. agencies are now operating in Iraq,
doing many of the jobs the U.S. military was apparently not prepared
A New Step for the U.N.—an Ombudsman (July 8, 2003)
"Until now, most employees had to wait
until an internal dispute provoked administrative
action—and then appeal it."
U.N. Still Battered by U.S. Action On Iraq (July 1, 2003)
"Americans seem to hate
the United Nations for not supporting the war, while a lot of the
rest of the world hates the organization for not preventing it."
AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division (June 23, 2003)
"Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make
[the U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | August 6, 2003
Equal Rights For Homosexuals Contentious at U.N.
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—A movement for gay rights, not a subject publicly discussed much around the United Nations, is steadily taking shape within the organization at the same time the issue has gripped the Anglican church worldwide and sparked exchanges at the highest political levels in Washington.
Monday evening, in its largest public event so far, a 7-year-old group that calls itself UNGLOBE—for U.N. Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees—sponsored a panel of high-profile speakers on the rights of employees in same-sex relationships. The discussion was perhaps an unusual event for U.N. headquarters, but its goal is hardly revolutionary in today's world. UNGLOBE merely wants to bring the United Nations in line with other large international organizations, both private and intergovernmental.
What has frustrated the movement's founders, they say, is not that the United Nations has turned its back on them. UNGLOBE was granted official recognition in 1996 by the Office of Human Resources Management as an employee advocacy group. As such, it talks regularly with officials. It has a Web site: www.unglobe.org. No effort has been made to ban its meetings or to prevent it from staging an event like this week's panel discussion.
Speaking at the program were Barney Frank, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts; Svend Robinson, a member of the Canadian Parliament who led campaigns for gay rights in that country; Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian-born Princeton philosopher and writer; Paula Ettelbrick of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and James B. Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author on economic and media subjects.
The U.N. group wants more than just the basic right to exist and be heard, however. It wants the United Nations to recognize same-sex couples and treat such partnerships as equal to traditional marriages.
"The problem is that almost all top U.N. officials, those who are responsible for action, have for years ignored the issues, both discrimination and domestic partner benefits," said Siddharth Dube, a well-known writer on development from India who is the group's vice president. "I think they have wished that these demands—which are nothing more than demands for equal treatment of all U.N. staff—would just fade away or that someone else would take responsibility," he said. "There have always been a few staunchly fair-minded exceptions and we sense that because of their efforts the inertia may indeed be ending," he added.
He and other leaders of the group point to expressions of general support from very high-ranking people, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, who, in a speech to the World Conference against Racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, included sexual orientation among other categories where, he said, discrimination in the workplace "is all too common."
Annan, who attended Monday's event, told those at the panel, "We should be much more tolerant and compassionate. And I think what is important is that we should stress those positive aspects in our society, the things that bring us together, and move away from discrimination and persecution."
Regarding the employees' appeal regarding their rights, Annan said, "we have rules here that we are looking at that affect some of these things."
At a news conference last week, when Annan was asked to comment on the debate over what constitutes a family, he said, "I believe that individuals should be allowed to make their own choices and that we should be careful not to draw conclusions or adopt prejudicial attitudes towards people for their choices and preferences. That's not something I think this organization should get involved in."
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, who was out of New York on the day of the panel, first sent a supportive statement to the organizers last week. Then, within days, he replaced it with a revised, truncated and toned-down version, a sign of how tricky the issue has become at the United Nations. But Malloch Brown did retain the essence of his core message: "Discrimination based on sexual orientation not only violates basic human rights but also hinders development by immobilizing human capital, stifling expression and limiting freedom of choice," he said.
Messages of support have been coming in over recent days from Carol Bellamy, the executive director of UNICEF, Stephen Lewis, the secretary general's special representative on HIV/AIDS in Africa and Peter Piot, the head of the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS in Geneva.
At the International Labor Organization, Juan Somavia, the director general, who is a Chilean human rights lawyer, has put the issue on the table for international discussion.
But there has been resistance among U.N. member nations, and the divide is widening.
The issue is becoming more urgent, the U.N. group says, as more governments and hundreds of international corporations recognize gay partnerships. Canada most recently approved gay marriages, as the Netherlands and Belgium have done, and there are numerous other governments offering varying degrees of acceptance, creating a gap between the rights that diplomats at U.N. missions enjoy and the limitations faced in New York by international civil servants from the same countries.
A Dutch diplomat could, for example, take a partner to many places with all the benefits of a traditional spouse. But if he or she left the Dutch foreign service and joined the United Nations, life could be much more difficult. Gay U.N. employees say that the organization not only will not recognize long-term relationships in providing benefits but also does not help a gay partner get a visa to accompany an employee to a new posting.
At the United Nations, demands for what some nations describe as "Western"-inspired rights are often blocked by member nations with conservative leaders or cultures. North Africans have been very actively opposed to gay rights, advocates say. But they are not alone. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, echoed by President Sam Nujoma of Namibia, called homosexuality a disease that originated in "so-called developed countries." In the U.S. Congress, there are those who would outlaw gay marriage.
Women have faced similar hurdles at U.N. conferences when their campaigns for broader reproductive and legal rights or even a hearing on certain discriminatory practices are written off as the excesses of Western feminism.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund—both part of the U.N. family—have not flinched at recognizing gay rights and are, in fact, leaders among international organizations in banning discrimination and providing benefits. Gay rights advocates say that both are more liberal in extending recognition than the European Union and miles ahead of the U.N. Secretariat, which is more susceptible to political pressures.
The World Bank in particular has what the leaders of UNGLOBE call a "full panoply" of rights for same-sex, unmarried heterosexual or other nontraditional partnerships. Regulations at the bank state clearly that when registered by affidavit proving that certain criteria (such as the length and stability of the relationship) have been met, domestic partners of its gay staff members will get medical coverage. Moreover, a "registered domestic partner" of a bank employee also gets an ID card, travel and relocation allowances, accident insurance, education payments for children, health club membership, immunizations and a host of other benefits.
What makes the difference? At Human Rights Watch, Widney Brown, deputy director of programs and one of the authors of the recent report, More Than a Name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and its Consequences in Southern Africa, says that good management and a sense of professionalism help keep gay rights from being politicized to the detriment of employees. Brown, the moderator of this week's UNGLOBE panel, said that the expert staffs of U.N. agencies and programs outside the Secretariat, the General Assembly and bodies controlled directly by governments are doing much better at keeping up with changing attitudes toward gay rights, even though there are no systemwide guidelines.
"I would argue that most of the programs like UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO or UNHCR are all way ahead because they are mainly professionals who are committed to whatever area they are working in," she said in an interview. "They bring to it a much less politicized approach to all these issues. But when you go to the Commission on Human Rights or the General Assembly, it's intensely politicized." In other words, governments get involved in blockading the expansion of universal definitions of rights.
The opposition can become extremely intense, even hysterical. Brown recalls that in 1998 at the Rome treaty conference creating the International Criminal Court, a group of Middle Eastern nations and the Vatican (which inveighed last week against gay marriage) fought the inclusion among war crimes of the sexual abuse of women, described in the text as a crime of "gender."
"The reason that battle happened," Brown said, "was that the Vatican was going around saying 'gender' means homosexuality." Say that again?
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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