Good Vibes from South Africa: Foreign Policy Breakthrough, Michelle Obama’s Visit

First Lady Michelle Obama landed in Pretoria, South Africa, late on Monday night, embarking on her first major solo trip. The agenda focuses on youth leadership, education, and health; Mrs. Obama is scheduled to speak with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and already met with a wife of President Jacob Zuma and Nelson Mandela this morning. The visit will bring spotlight to the country’s achievements in health and education policies, highlighting the country’s leadership role on the Continent and further advancing the export of best-practice policies from South Africa to its allies from the African Union. Internationally, South Africa’s credibility is on the rise. Last week, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, South African delegation introduced the first-ever UN resolution on the human rights of LGBT persons. By a vote of 23 to 19, the resolution was adopted, setting an international standard against the discrimination of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex people. The vote reflects the growing sentiment that LGBT rights are indeed human rights, and that people of all sexual orientations and identities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. That sentiment is strong in South Africa, which has a strong record in advancing gay rights at home—including through constitutional protections and the recognition of same-sex marriage. The country’s leadership to advance human rights internationally is a welcome sign and will go a long way—as most African nations are either outright criminalizing homosexual behavior, or doing very little to protect LGBT persons from the everyday violence, harassment, and discrimination that surround them. Learn more about LGBTI issues in Uganda featuring LGBTI activist Julius Kaggwa. 

The resolution states that “no one should be subject to discrimination or violence due to sexual orientation or gender identity.” It also establishes a formal UN process for documenting human rights abuses and discrimination against LGBT persons, thereby creating greater accountability and a mechanism for “naming and shaming” countries that do not work to protect the freedoms of LGBTs. This is particularly significant considering the fact that 76 countries around the world currently criminalize homosexuality or homosexual behavior within their laws, five of which include the death penalty. Though the resolution is merely the first step in the repeal of such odious laws, it is an important precedent to which LGBT advocates and human rights defenders can turn. This success is in large part due to the efforts of civil society groups around the world, including the Council for Global Equality, which have long championed the notion that LGBT rights deserve equal footing with other human rights. As a member of the Council for Global Equality, Human Rights First supports the resolution and will continue advocating for stronger government response to violence targeting LGBT people across the world. Although it is hailed as a major victory for the human rights community, several Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and African countries condemned the resolution, claiming that it fell outside the purview of the international human rights system. Therefore, it is up to civil society and the global advocacy community to ensure that today’s resolution supports human rights movements in places like Uganda, Malawi, and Russia, where LGBTs continue to experience acts of violence and oppression.

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Published on June 21, 2011

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