Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day: Today, December 10, is UN “Human Rights Day.” The date marks the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the United Nations. With Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership, the UDHR gave birth to the modern human rights movement. It is a document that reflects America’s founding values of liberty, justice and opportunity for all. And so it is also fitting that President Obama is in Norway today accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his support for multilateral institutions in advancing peace, security and human rights.

One of this year’s leading human rights challenges within the United Nations has been the ongoing effort of many governments, the United States included, to affirm that LGBT rights are human rights. The Council for Global Equality is pleased that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have embraced this modern human rights struggle.

In her Senate confirmation, Secretary Clinton highlighted the President’s own commitment to human rights, emphasizing that “President-Elect Obama said during the campaign that human rights violations based on sexual orientation must be ‘part and parcel of any conversations we have about human rights.’ If confirmed, I will work to ensure that our country stands on principle against human rights abuse or prejudice of any kind.” Under the Secretary’s leadership, LGBT rights are now “part and parcel” of all of our human rights conversations. But dialogue alone is not enough; there is far more to accomplish, both at home and abroad.

At the United Nations last December, 66 countries submitted a ground-breaking statement on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. The statement recognizes that LGBT rights are indeed human rights and calls on all countries to decriminalize consensual homosexual relations and protect the rights of LGBT individuals. Unfortunately senior Bush officials refused to join the statement, a decision that left the United States out of step with our neighbors and as one of the only countries in the entire “Western Group” that failed to sign. In March 2009, the Obama Administration reversed course and announced full U.S. support for this important new human rights campaign. President Obama’s decision came just a few weeks after the U.S. State Department released an annual report on human rights that was the most comprehensive to date on sexual orientation and gender identity concerns, pointing to a growing pattern of human rights abuse directed against LGBT people around the world.

But how exactly do we turn those commitments, those human rights “conversations,” into meaningful protection? We must begin by moving beyond a reporting agenda, or even a conversation-focused agenda, to adopt a new human rights protection agenda.  And nowhere is that challenge more evident than in Uganda today. The Ugandan parliament is currently considering a bill that is so homophobic on its face that its provisions sound implausible to even the most conservative ear. As such, the bill in Uganda’s parliament, which includes a death penalty provision and criminalizes those who fail to report suspected homosexuals to the authorities, is quickly becoming a modern human rights Rubicon; its passage would lay bare the frailty of the UDHR’s revolutionary call for human rights and dignity for all.

Joining many other nations around the world, the United States must make it absolutely clear to Uganda that the passage of the bill would substantially impact our bilateral relationship and our health investments in that country. This is crucial, because opposition to this bill is testing our global capacity to protect the rights of a highly demonized minority in a politically charged context. So far we are losing.

The State Department, in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Uganda, is saying all of the right things. But unfortunately, despite our annual U.S. investment of nearly $300 million to support HIV prevention care and treatment in Uganda, we do not seem to be having much influence in scuttling a proposal that would undermine our massive health expenditure by criminalizing HIV outreach to a highly vulnerable community. The bill’s passage is increasingly likely. If it passes, it would jeopardize our country’s future health investments, insult our new President’s human rights commitments and diminish our country’s leadership.

On this Human Rights Day, the world’s leaders are focused on President Obama’s speech in Norway. But the question is this: Will he use his global stature and the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize to back up those words? Will he honor his commitments to human rights for all, including the world’s most vulnerable minority communities? That answer may soon become evident in Uganda.

For more information on Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality” bill and the Council’s work to expose its human rights implications, visit

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