Congressional Republicans Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Az) have rallied behind a coalition of Islamic governments urging foreign governments to oppose a U.S.-led effort to support a bid by an American gay and lesbian organization to gain full-fledged membership as a U.N. nongovernment organization.
The move comes as the Obama administration is planning to press for the 54-member U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to grant on Monday "consultative status" to an American group, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), so that it can participate in U.N. meetings along with thousands of other international non-government organizations.
In a letter to U.N. members, Smith and Franks expressed concern that the U.S. initiative would improperly bypass a U.N. committee, which is dominated by socially conservative Islamic governments, that normally accredits U.N. NGOs. That committee, which reports to ECOSOC, has prevented any action on the gay rights group’s application for more than three years. In its history, ECOSOC has accredited a total of nine gay and lesbian organizations.
"It has come to my attention … that there will be an attempt to bypass the [NGO] committee," Smith and Franks wrote on July 9. "I respectfully urge you to refuse attempts to circumvent UN procedure and secure a premature approval of the IGLHRC in the ECOSOC. Preservation of the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion require that IGLRHC undergo further review in the standard review process."
In June, Egypt led efforts in the NGO committee to block a request by the U.S. to grant the group consultative status, which would provide the groups representatives with a U.N. grounds pass and to participate formally in U.N. meetings on human rights, health ,and other issues. Angola, Burundi, China, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, and Sudan backed the Egyptian invocation of a "no motion" procedure that blocked action on the application. Turkey abstained.
The United States and Britain, with support from Romania, criticized the move as a delaying tactic. "We know from the past that their further responses will never satisfy certain delegations," Britain’s representative to the NGO committee, Cristina Barbaglia, said in June.
The U.S. declined Thursday to respond directly to the Smith and Frank letter. But Mark Kornblau, the chief spokesman for Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said: "The United States is determined to make U.N. committees live up to their founding principles and be true to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. The purpose of the NGO committee is to give civil society a strong voice at the UN, and that includes the important contributions that gay and lesbian groups like IGLHRC can make on issues like human rights and combating HIV/AIDS."
On Thursday, fifteen members of Congress, including Democratic leaders, Barney Frank (D-Ma), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Howard Berman (D-Ca) and Henry Waxman (D-Ca), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent their own letter to U.N. members urging them to approve the gay rights group’s application in order to "support the vital role of civil society at the United Nations…Please do not allow the voices of marginalized people to be silenced by discrimination and procedural roadblocks."
The Republican Party’s social conservatives, along with Christian organizations, have long worked closely with some of the U.N.’s most conservative Islamic groups to prevent social liberals, including gays and women’s rights group, from promoting their views within the United Nations.
In criticizing the current U.S. position, Smith and Franks drew upon arguments presented by Egypt and other conservative governments that allow little freedom of expression on their own soil. They cited something called the Yogyakarta Principles, which IGLHCR has endorsed, that appeals to states to "ensure that the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression does not violate the rights and freedoms of persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities."
Egypt’s representative, Wael Attiya, raised concern back in June that such principles could be used to subject religious leaders, who condemn homosexual behavior, to be persecuted. If a "preacher says that a relationship between same sex [couples] is wrong, will the preacher be hunted," he said in June.
Smith and Franks echoed those concerns, saying they have "serious questions regarding the IGLHRC’s support for the internationally recognized rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression remain outstanding in the NGO committee. Consequently, a forced, premature action in ECOSOC to approve IGLHRC would potentially undermine these important rights. As well as the long established due process for NGO review."
Jessica Stern, IGLHCR’s program director, said the Smith and Franks letter constitutes a "distortion" of the U.S. position, noting that there is plenty of precedent for states to petition ECOSOC to approve applications. But she said the strategy sends a signal to some countries that might be wavering on how to vote that the United States is divided on this issue. "There is absolutely nothing being circumvented here," she said. "What is at stake is civil society’s access to the United Nations."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.