This story has been updated
Last June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a far-reaching administrative ruling that offered marital benefits for the first time to all of the United Nations’ lesbian and gay employees, as well as to other U.N. workers who had entered legally recognized domestic partnerships. On Monday, March 2, Russia gave the plan a resounding nyet.
Speaking Monday morning at a meeting of the U.N.’s main budget committee, Russian diplomat Sergey Khalizov demanded that Ban reverse his decision on the matter, saying the U.N. chief’s action violated a U.N. General Assembly resolution that left it to U.N. employees’ governments to determine whether are eligible for spousal benefits. Moscow has been weighing whether to force a vote in the budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee, to halt funding such benefits, a vote that it likely could win. Unlike the U.N. Security Council, the United States and other big powers don’t have the power to veto votes in the Fifth Committee. While its decisions are generally made by consensus, states can call for a vote.
“We will insist that the secretary-general urgently revoke the administrative bulletin” expanding benefits to same-sex couples, the Russian diplomat told the committee.
“For us it is a very important issue,” Russia’s spokesman Alexey Zaytsev told Foreign Policy in an email. “We would prefer to make a decision…by consensus but if some delegations do not demonstrate a constructive approach to the concerns raised by us and shared by many other member states, then we’ll have no other choice but to call for a vote.”
Russia’s critics characterized the gambit as a cynical political maneuver aimed at checking the authority of a U.N. leader who has clashed with Moscow over its policies from Syria to Ukraine. Russia has transformed what is by all accounts a low-priority administrative dispute into a high-profile power struggle with the U.N. leader.
Russia “is looking for any excuse to curtail the U.N. secretary-general’s authority,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “It’s no secret that the secretary-general and Russia have been at cross-purposes over Ukraine and Syria, and the Russians have found the perfect political vehicle for attacking him.”
Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, said U.N. member states “should push back hard against Russia’s backwards efforts to impose on the U.N. the same kind of homophobic attitudes Moscow promotes at home.”
The Russian move comes several weeks after its diplomats distributed a memo, known as an aide-mémoire, to all U.N. members arguing that Ban’s action “violates the sovereign rights of members states to determine the legal framework of [the] life of their citizens.” Moscow said the move would make U.N. states that do not recognize same-sex marriages liable for the costs of some of those additional benefits and increase the likelihood of fraud. Under the new arrangement, according to the Russian memo, “each staff member who is not married can easily register sham traditional or same-sex marriage and can get additional dependency allowances.”
The European Union and the United States challenged the Russian position, saying the U.N. secretary-general had the authority to extend benefits for employees in domestic partnerships without seeking the approval of U.N. member states. “The secretary-general, as the head of this organization, has broad authority to manage U.N. staff under his authority, and we will protect his prerogatives in this manner,” Isobel Coleman, the U.S. representative to the United Nations for management and reform, told the U.N. budget committee Monday. “This should not be a forum for member states to undermine essential rights with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
U.N. officials say the Russian initiative, were it to succeed, could have an impact well beyond same-sex marriages, risking benefits for children adopted in a foreign country.
The U.N. first tackled benefits for same-sex couples in January 2004, when then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued an administrative order, known as a bulletin, that extended benefits to spouses in “domestic partnerships” as long as the union was considered legal in the staff member’s country.
The decision drew protests from conservative states, including the Vatican, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now called the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), a bloc consisting of 56 Islamic countries. They pressured the U.N. to reissue a new bulletin, stripping out any references to domestic partnerships and reinforcing the need for a U.N. employee to secure his or her government’s approval to receive spousal benefits.
The new bulletin, adopted in September 2004, still allowed U.N. employees from countries where same-sex marriage was legal to receive benefits for their spouses. But it gave conservative countries a virtual veto over their nationals’ ability to receive such benefits, even if they were married in a place like New York or Paris, where same-sex marriage is recognized by the state.
The arrangement, according to U.N. officials, proved inherently discriminatory, denying benefits to U.N. employees who had the misfortune of being born in countries where same-sex marriage is outlawed. U.N. lawyers also feared it would set the stage for legal challenges within the organization. In June, Ban sought to rectify the situation, issuing a new bulletin that took the exclusive power to determine an employee’s eligibility for benefits out of the hands of his or her government. Instead, the U.N. will now look to the “competent authority” — that is, the city, country, or church or synagogue — that recognized the domestic partnership in the first place.
Russia, which has taken a harsher stance on gay rights under President Vladimir Putin, has only recently joined the fight, according to U.N. officials and human rights groups. In its memo, Russia raised concern about the “financial and legal implications” of the U.N.’s policy. But an internal U.N. review turned up only one case since Ban issued his administrative ruling last June in which a U.N. employee claimed benefits for a same-sex marriage, according to a senior U.N. official.
Photo credit: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, March 2, 2015: Jessica Stern is executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. An earlier version of this article mistakenly called the organization the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Council.