Don’t Believe the Hype

No, the U.S. Didn’t Vote at the UN for the Death Penalty for Homosexuality

A recent UN vote may signal the United States’ retreat from human rights law – but not for the reasons clickbait headlines have said.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The memes have spoken: the United States supports the death penalty for homosexuality. Or at least didn’t oppose it at the United Nations. Or something. So say several outraged stories in the gay press, and several thousand tweets.

Except that this never happened.

What did happen is actually far more troubling, but it takes more than a tweet to understand why. Here we go.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is a part of the United Nations which meets regularly in Geneva. The UNHRC is important because it defines, for better or for worse, the otherwise nebulous term “human rights” for international law and international relations. When a country is accused of human rights violations, these definitions form the agreed-upon basis of possible sanctions or other diplomatic actions.

Of course, what that also means is that the UNHRC talks a lot, arguing about resolutions that have no immediate effect, dickering over individual words and phrases, and producing a lot of hot air. Again, these arguments do eventually have an impact in the real world – but for critics of the United Nations, the UNHRC’s endless deliberations provide plenty of fodder.

One question that has been boiling for years is the status of the death penalty. Most developed nations have banned the death penalty, with the United States and China being the most notable exceptions. In 2015, for example, 1,634 people were executed in 25 countries, with the overwhelming majority in China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

China is by far the most prolific executor, and Amnesty International believes that the reported figures are far lower than the actual ones, which may run into the thousands. In 2015, the United States executed 28 people.

Many activists believe that the death penalty is, itself, a violation of human rights, and over the years, the United Nations has passed various resolutions calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, insisting on some basic legal protections for those sentenced to death, and so on. These have been largely toothless, again, but this is how the UN works.

Andrew Novak, professor of criminology at George Mason University and author of The Global Decline of the Mandatory Death Penalty, told The Daily Beast that these votes “reflect the death penalty's decline generally.” The United States and China are outliers.

Which brings us to September 28, 2017, when the UNHRC considered yet another such resolution. The resolution contained 14 specific statements, all of which began with words like “calls upon states” or “urges states” or other exhortatory but ultimately non-binding language. States were urged to avoid discrimination, to ensure that all people can “exercise their rights related to equal access to justice,” to ensure that no one under the age of 18 is executed, and many, many other things.

Paragraph 6 of the resolution says that the UNHRC “also urges States that have not yet abolished the death penalty to ensure that it is not imposed as a sanction for specific forms of conduct such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations.”

Now, the UNHRC contains representatives from a wide range of countries. Some of them, like those from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, routinely vote against almost every resolution that’s considered. Others, like those from Western Europe, routinely support the most expansive resolutions. Still others, like those from the United States, Russia, and China, fall somewhere in between.

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The September 28 resolution passed by a vote of 27-13 with 7 abstentions. The 13 opposed were the United States, Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. (Note, this is a much larger list than what some have reported, lumping the with Saudi Arabia and Iraq only – a polemical misrepresentation that reeks of Islamophobia.)

It is not at all surprising that the U.S.voted against. First, the U.S.has long opposed attempts to declare the death penalty itself to be a human rights violation, for the obvious reason that many states still apply it. Furthermore, Novak said, the U.S.has “a longtime policy of withholding support from UN meddling in domestic criminal justice issues.” This policy has been followed in Democratic as well as Republican adminstrations.

Second, this resolution was particularly broad. Heather Nauert, State Department spokesperson, said in a statement to the British newspaper The Independent that "the headlines, reporting and press releases on this issue are misleading. As our representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva said on Friday, the United States is disappointed to have to vote against this resolution. We had hoped for a balanced and inclusive resolution that would better reflect the positions of states that continue to apply the death penalty lawfully, as the United States does.”

In particular, Nauert said, “The United States voted against this resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances and calling for its abolition.”

Finally, in reference to the specific language on sexuality, Nauert added that “the United States unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for conduct such as homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy. We do not consider such conduct appropriate for criminalisation and certainly not crimes for which the death penalty would be lawfully available as a matter of international law.”

In other words, this vote was not about LGBT people but about the death penalty more broadly, and it is possible that even the Obama administration might have voted against this broad a resolution.

That being said, there is a third reason the Trump administration did so that is more troubling. That was signaled in Trump’s statement at the UN that all countries are entitled to their own “sovereignty.” That term is a dog-whistle. It has been used by Russia, Muslim-majority countries, and others for decades as a response to human rights activists. Don’t talk to me about human rights, these countries have said, we have our own sovereignty and our own customs and what we do here is none of your business.

That, not this resolution’s applicability to sexual identity, is what progressives should be worried out. If the Trump administration has signed on to anti-internationalist views on “sovereignty” – a position that aligns perfectly with its own ‘America First’ policy – it poses a serious threat to international law and international human rights.

Moreover, the U.S.has threatened to drop out of the UNHRC altogether, which would delegitimize the United States primarily, but also harm the effort to maintain global human rights norms. That would be even worse than recent Russian efforts to capture the UNHRC and use it to advance a right-wing social agenda.

At the very least, the nay vote signals that the United States will not advance the cause of human rights or factor it into its foreign policy. At most, it sends a strong signal that the U.S.will actively oppose such efforts.

The September 28 vote is a sign that the latter may be the case. If the vote signals a deep shift in policy, rather than a single objection to a broad resolution on the death penalty, then it is indeed troubling – though for reasons utterly different from the hysteria in the left-wing press.

If there is anything worse than the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and other minorities, it’s their attacks on truth. And every time someone on the left buys into a poorly sourced and clearly exaggerated story, or vaguely condemns “the media,” they are participating in that attack on our democratic institutions and on the concept of truth itself.

It would indeed be terrible if the Trump administration had voted to support the death penalty for gay people. It would also be terrible if progressives didn’t care enough about the truth to look before they link.