An LGBT Response to the State Department’s UPR Report

By Julie Dorf, Senior Advisor

The best part of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s livid reaction to the U.S. report to the United Nations on our country’s human rights record was that it put this relatively obscure international human rights instrument–known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)–into the mainstream news this week. CNN and the New York Times would otherwise never have covered the UPR submission of the United States at the UN’s Human Rights Council without a scandal to report. Brewer was furious at the inclusion of a very brief mention of the pending federal court case reviewing Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law on immigration, through which the federal government argues that they, not the states, are responsible for immigration law.

Both the left and the right had predictable reactions to the 25-page U.S. report released last week. The left made long lists of issues not covered adequately in the report, which is limited in length by the UN process itself. The US Human Rights Network, Human Rights Watch, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and many other important groups raised important issues that got short shrift in the official U.S. government report. The right predictably questioned the U.S. engaging in the UN process at all. The Heritage Foundation uses the report to criticize the Obama administration for joining the newly formed Human Rights Council in the first place, calling it “a mutual praise society for repressive regimes.” And the gay community’s The Advocate published a piece criticizing the Council for Global Equality for our participation in the UN process when weeks prior we submitted our own report of the U.S. record on the human rights of LGBT people. The Advocate’s James Kirchick claimed that when the American LGBT community uses this global human rights mechanism for advocacy, it “effectively minimizes the appalling way in which the world’s genuine human rights abusers treat their gay citizens.” (See the criticism here, and our rebuttal here.)

In fact, the U.S. report is more honest and self-reflective than anything we would have gotten from prior administrations, even if it does attempt to position the Obama administration as doing everything it possibly can on the many unresolved human rights problems in this country. We know that further leadership is required of our government, and it is our role as advocates to keep the pressure on.

For the LGBT community, the report includes a relatively extensive paragraph (page 9, paragraph 34) outlying the administration’s support for most of the legislation still pending in Congress that would move us toward the goal of equality for LGBT Americans. It contextualizes the LGBT community’s struggle by writing, “In each era of our history there tends to be a group whose experience of discrimination illustrates the continuing debate among citizens about how we can build a more fair society. In this era, one such group is LGBT Americans.”

The State Department report says: “Debate continues over equal rights to marriage for LGBT Americans at the federal and state levels, and several states have reformed their laws to provide for same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships. At the federal level, the President supports repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.” It is here that we must register our disappointment. Although we understand the real political constraints facing the administration, we want our President to support full marriage equality for all LGBT Americans, as well as the Respect for Marriage Act. Unfortunately, Obama has felt compelled to articulate and re-articulate his opposition to marriage equality and his support for civil unions. LGBT Americans deserve a government that stands up on “controversial issues” not only to the Governor Brewers of the United States, but to state laws and ballot measures that restrict the human rights of LGBT Americans—including our right to form family.

Our nation has a long history of intense power struggles between the states and the federal government. On immigration, the federal government has voiced its opposition to the Arizona law. The Council would have liked to see a similar call-out about California or Arkansas–states that also overstepped their authority by taking away rights from same-sex couples of existing relationship and family protections through their ballot measure process. The Arkansas adoption ban was overturned in the courts, and a case is currently pending challenging California’s Proposition 8 in federal courts, which was not mentioned in the report.

Thank you Governor Brewer for helping to bring the public’s attention to the UPR report this week, and to the continued need for us to stay vigilant about the proper role of the state and the federal government in the implementation of our human rights values and obligations, as we continue to perfect our nation’s union.

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