Indefensible: The US Vote Against the UN Death Penalty Resolution

Although the United States and Europe have made impressive strides, both culturally and legally, in the battle against homophobia, that progress has by no means been global in scope.

Homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, and in 13 of them, the penalty is death.

Very few of the issues that come before the United Nations are straightforward, but on September 29th, members voted on a Resolution that should have been a “slam dunk” for the U.S. The motion called upon countries in which capital punishment remains legal  to take steps to ensure that the death penalty is not imposed “arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner” or for forms of conduct such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual homosexual relations.

As numerous outlets, including Newsweek, reported,

The United States was one of 13 nations, including some of the most repressive nations on Earth, to oppose a United Nations motion condemning the death penalty for those in same-sex relationships, blasphemers and adulterers.

Incredible as it seems, the United States voted in Geneva against that United Nations motion.  We were joined by Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in voting  no. That’s the company we are evidently now keeping.

The measure passed anyway, with 27 votes, but that doesn’t make our vote any more palatable, or any less of a betrayal.

Rights activists have condemned the Trump administration and its U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, for refusing to back the measure, with the Human Rights Campaign slamming the decision as “beyond disgraceful.”

“Ambassador Haley has failed the LGBTQ community by not standing up against the barbaric use of the death penalty to punish individuals in same-sex relationships,” said Ty Cobb, director of HRC Global in a statement.

Susan Rice, ambassador to the U.N. under Barack Obama, said “shame on US!” in reaction to the vote.

“I was proud to lead U.S. efforts at UN to protect LGBTQ people, back in the day when America stood for human rights for all,” she tweeted.

The State Department denied animus toward the LGBTQ community, and defended the vote on the grounds of “broader concerns”– i.e., the resolution’s condemnation of the death penalty. (It called for countries which have yet to abolish the death penalty to “consider” doing so.) In the past, the U.S. has abstained from voting on condemnations of capital punishment, and we could easily have joined the seven nations that abstained from this particular vote. But we didn’t.

Abstention is one thing. A “no” vote is another. The U.S. has never previously voted against such resolutions.

Despite State Department insistence that the vote did not signal a change in U.S. support for the rights of LGBTQ persons,

The U.N. vote comes a week after the Trump administration argued in court that federal anti-discrimination law does not protect gay people from being fired by their employers because of their sexuality.

Nineteen states in the U.S. and two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. In retaining capital punishment, we join countries like Uganda, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other nations not exactly known for their enlightened view of human rights. We not only retain the death penalty, we use it. A lot. The U.S. executes more people than most other nations; according to Amnesty International,  of the 10 nations in the world that account for the highest number of executions, we rank seventh.

That enthusiasm for the death penalty, while incomprehensible to me, might have justified an abstention from the vote. It does not justify voting against the resolution. Claims that the vote isn’t a signal that the Trump administration is trying to roll back progress on gay rights ring hollow.

Not that an assault on yet another group despised by White Straight Conservative Christian Males should surprise us…

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on October 6, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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