How the United States
hurts those it tries to help
By Aaron Magid
FOR decades, the United States has championed human rights abroad as part of its foreign policy. Yet Washington’s attempts to balance promoting human rights with realpolitik have often been messy and inconsistent, especially when dealing with rights-violating regimes that remain important geostrategic actors. During her famous 1995 “Human Rights are Women’s Rights” speech, First Lady Hillary Clinton riled a key economic partner, China, when she harshly criticised its treatment of women. By contrast, in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, for raising the issue of torture with Chilean officials. Kissinger suggested that Popper “cut out the political science lectures”.
Yet it remains an open question to this day as to how aggressively the State Department should promote democratic principles, an act that often infuriates foreign countries or leads to a backlash. Today, the inclusion of LGBT equality in Washington’s worldwide human rights-promotion package is highlighting precisely this dilemma.
DOING BAD BY DOING GOOD
Despite its chequered past on gay rights—the State Department expelled gay employees in the 1950s— the United States under President Barack Obama has dramatically changed its policy. In February 2015, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first U.S. special envoy for LGBT rights. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasised the importance of “defending and promoting” the rights of LGBT individuals to American diplomacy. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji marched in the Stockholm Pride Parade, and in India, the U.S. Embassy lit up its facade in rainbow colours after the June shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Yet in much of the Arab Middle East, where populations overwhelmingly oppose homosexuality (including 95 percent of Egyptians and 97 percent of Jordanians), LGBT-rights promotion is more complicated.
If the United States truly feels it must take part in LGBT activism in Jordan or other Arab countries that have high levels of homophobia, community members have suggested discrete steps that U.S. diplomats can take. One activist, Nadine, recommended offering emergency relocation and job training for LGBT individuals who may be physically at risk. Neela Ghosal, a senior gay-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, emphasised that private discussions with foreign governments through, for instance, health and justice ministries, can be a productive way for Washington to reiterate its concerns on the issue. Finally, Ghosal urged the United States to consult with local LGBT organisations before taking any action, to ensure that whatever it intends to do actually helps civil society. Most importantly, Washington should keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight. (In what may be a sign of progress, both U.S. LGBT Special Envoy Randy Berry and Ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells repeatedly declined to be interviewed about the United States’ support for LGBT rights in the Arab world.)
Promoting LGBT rights is a cornerstone of the State Department’s human rights agenda. But, in Jordan at least, this promotion has had a damaging effect— delegitimising the local LGBT community and putting it at even greater risk. Perhaps, when it comes to LGBT rights, Washington should ensure first of all that its policies do no harm.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015