Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power at the White House Dialogue on Global LGBT Human Rights

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Washington, DC
June 29, 2016

It’s amazing to be here and to be with all of you. This is a really important thing to do, particularly in light of recent events, but anyway, to step back, and to look back at what has been achieved in this last five years. From the diplomatic corps representatives who are here, to civil society representatives – each of you have played a really critical role in bringing us to where we are today. I’m only going to speak very briefly, but do want to pull a few of the highlights out of the last five years and look at the legacy of the Presidential Memorandum, which is itself just a symptom of the President’s leadership.

Five years ago, when I was in the position occupied brilliantly now by Steve Pomper, I had the privilege, along with Ambassador David Pressman, who you will hear from a little bit later, of helping President Obama shepherd this historic LGBT memorandum through the U.S. government. When he signed the Presidential Memorandum – I remember as if it was yesterday – the response inside the government, as well as outside the government, was immediate. And in particular, I will never forget the outpouring of emotion from people around the United States – again, whether inside or outside the government – but also around the world, when they heard that LGBTI rights was being embedded, as Josh put it, into the DNA of the U.S. government.

I don’t know why it resonates so much more when one sees one’s own issue in the kind of sterile bureaucratese that is the lifeblood of government, but, you know, if every other issue that is a priority lives in those documents and in those directives, why not LGBTI rights? And sure enough, putting it into that form and having that directive go out to all the agencies and departments that are part of the U.S. government, it’s game-changing. It means it’s there forever; it means someone has to take it away. And it really was a historic step that the President took, and one of the many reasons I’m incredibly proud to get to work for him and to represent him.

So the idea that there’s this memorandum that dedicates the U.S. government and our foreign policies, a matter of national interest, to fighting the criminalization of LGBTI status; to directing significant resources to empowering LGBTI groups abroad; to responding swiftly and meaningfully when governments have repressed LGBTI rights. These are words on a page, but they spring off the page when they affect – as Josh, again, put it – real people.

On the conference call that we convened to walk people through the components of this Presidential Memorandum – which I should say was issued the same day Secretary Clinton gave her amazing speech in Geneva, where you could’ve – I wasn’t there, but I gather – could’ve heard a pin drop when she said “LGBTI rights are human rights; human rights are LGBTI rights and all universal rights.” We convened a conference call, and what I remember most about that call was one woman, describing her life as a lesbian woman with her partner, deciding where she could travel with her children abroad, and knowing her whole life that there were “No Go Zones” that were sort of off-limits – parts of the map that may as well not have been on the map for the purposes of her and her children and her partner. And she said, “Suddenly with this memorandum – even though we’re so far from that day – it’s the first time I see my government announcing to the world that its ambition is that there will be no ‘No Go Zones’ for me and my family. And because if these rights were universal rights, it would be so weird! We would actually never have to have that thought, that voice in the back of our heads, of thinking, you know, is that a place that is going to be friendly to me? Is it going to be hostile to me? Is it going to be criminal to love in the way that I can love in my home?” And, you know, as someone who hasn’t had to have that voice in her head, it really, really struck me what universality actually means and what a denial of universality means concretely for people who don’t – who can’t experience and don’t see their rights fully realized.

So this Presidential Memorandum sets out to end the “No Go Zones” and to expand enjoyment of rights in a deep, deep way. We have been implementing it, also in a deep way. The progress abroad, of course, is not like what we have had the amazing fortune of witnessing or experiencing here in this room. In some ways, some of the setbacks abroad I feel are a reaction in a way to some of the progress that has been made here, for all of the challenges that lie ahead even within our own borders. But even abroad we are making headway, and I can see it, as someone who worked here at the White House on these issues for four years, and now up in New York for three years. It’s different, it’s really different pushing this agenda internationally.

Five years ago, I would never have foreseen being able to hold a UN Security Council meeting – a mere meeting – on the topic of violence against LGBTI persons. And yet on August 24, 2015, we and Chile co-sponsored this meeting. Also, lots of countries in the UN family – even those who aren’t great on these issues at home – they showed up. And they heard one of the most powerful presentations any of them will ever hear: Subhi Nahas sharing his story of fleeing his home in Syria after being threatened by ISIL and even threatened by his own family. Subhi was recently honored as a Logo Trailblazer and as one of the Grand Marshals of New York City’s 2016 Pride March.

But I compared to that day – I’m not sure which is more amazing, to actually be speaking in front of the world about the need to change norms and implement human rights standards equally, without prejudice to whom we are applying them to, versus hanging out with Bill de Blasio and the other Pride March. But Subhi did a tremendous job. And the way we will change policy is we will change hearts and minds. And that is the order in which we are progressing in New York.

Five years ago, the United Nations did not even think about granting benefits to the families of same-sex UN employees. But a courageous UN Secretary-General put forward a UN bulletin granting those benefits. And I’m very proud of the fact that last year, the United States and a group of countries committed to non-discrimination and equality were able to thwart a very spirited Russian effort to force the Secretary-General to pull back his directive actually securing same-sex benefits – benefits for same-sex couples. So, that was another one that if you look at the 193 countries in the UN and the policies they have at home, it was not obvious that we were going to be able to sustain support for the Secretary-General’s important directive. But because – as we always say on my team – we want it more, and because we had such great support from civil society, the Russians were thwarted in a very, very lopsided vote, in fact, and were unable to defy the will of the Secretary-General.

Five years ago, one could not have dreamed that we would end up, in any circumstance, able to secure a Security Council condemnation of the targeting of people on the basis of sexual orientation. But out of the horrific Orlando attack and the heartbreak of that, we knew that we had to do everything in our power to try to unite a very, very divided Security Council. And on Monday, June 13, for the first time in the UN’s 70-year history, the Security Council denounced violence targeting people “as a result of their sexual orientation.” Even countries like Russia and Egypt did not block this effort.

And five years ago, I would never have imagined that we would be able to bring a diverse, regionally cross-cutting group of UN ambassadors to Stonewall for a monumental meeting of a new network that we are part of in New York, called the LGBT Core Group. And this was just an amazing meeting, where you had countries from Asia, Latin America, Europe – not yet Africa – but sitting around the table and talking about redoubling our efforts to push this agenda around the world. The UN is just a venue; it’s a forum – we shouldn’t confuse forum with substance. But if we can work it at the center and then get the change out into the capillaries, through the governments and their representatives and their citizens, we will turn the tide against discrimination internationally.

So we have come a long way in these five years, but the next five years start today. And I think it is invigorating that the Obama Administration – and thanks hugely to the leadership of Steve Pomper and Ambassador Rice – are not letting up in our efforts to promote LGBTI rights internationally.

I think we need to work very concretely to try to get more countries, more governments, to issue directives along the lines that President Obama had the foresight to issue five years ago. I will have the privilege of attending, with Special Envoy Berry, the Global LGBTI International Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay on July 13. And there, ministers and civil society activists from around the world will discuss how we can better promote LGBTI rights and inject, again, this agenda into various countries’ foreign policy agenda, but also into inclusive development. And I hope that any of the governments represented here will send ministers to that meeting. We are seeking to secure the highest level of representation possible.

I want to end just on a sobering note, and the reminder that for all of this progress – some of it in form, a lot also in substance – more than 70 countries still criminalize same-sex relationships, legislators continue to pass discriminatory laws, and LGBTI civil society actors face harassment and discrimination. And we need a global coalition of diverse voices, but also of united voices, standing up against hatred. We should all be able to love openly without hiding in the shadows. Nobody should ever have to have that voice in their head. We’ve got to eliminate the “No Go Zones” once and for all.

And I want to thank you, really and truly, for all of your work in this regard. We wouldn’t be here without you. And we won’t get where we need to get going forward unless we stay united. So I thank you, and I thank you very much for having me.

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