History was made at the United Nations yesterday when 60 countries signed onto a General Assembly declaration in support of the decriminalization of homosexuality. France–which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union–spearheaded the resolution, which was a 13 point declaration “to ensure that sexual orientation or gender identity may under no circumstances be the basis for criminal penalties, in particular executions, arrests or detention.”
Opposing the resolution, were the United States, the Holy See, and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This latter group issued its own statement claiming the declaration would ease restrictions against pedophilia. The United States couched its opposition in legal technicalities. “We are opposed to any discrimination, legally or politically,” said Alejandro D. Wolff, the deputy U.S. ambassador. “But the nature of our federal system prevents us from undertaking commitments and engagements where federal authorities don’t have jurisdiction.”
Despite the opposition, this was a pretty significant event for the United Nations–and for the world. A resolution like this is non-binding, meaning that it does not have the force of law anywhere. But in the long run these kinds of resolutions do help to foster the genesis of new legal norms and new human rights. The General Assembly resolution was the first step in what will be a ongoing process to decriminalize homosexuality and end LGBT discrimination on every country on the planet. Because this resolution was broadly supported by liberal democracies (including the E.U. most of Latin America and Commonwealth countries like New Zealand and Canada) pressure will steadily build to create a formal LGBT human rights framework. This is what liberal democracies do within the international system; they are hardwired to spread their ideals and extend the reach of international law. Once such a framework is built, it is only a matter of time before other countries begin to sign on.
A good guide for how this process works is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was first proposed in 1976. Some thirty years later, there are 185 state parties to the convention–over 90% of UN member states. This does not mean that discrimination against women is now a thing of the past–far from it. But CEDAW has helped to make gender perspectives mainstream, both within and outside the UN system.
Most of the countries now opposed to an international agreement to decriminalize homosexuality will eventually soften their position. In a country like the United States, I suspect the pressure will steadily build from domestic sources. In countries without a strong civil society tradition, the pressure will be felt externally. Countries desire acceptance into the family of liberal democracies–and seek the benefits conferred from being in that family, like a seat at the table in various international fora–will be forced to shed their opposition. The few countries that hold out will become increasingly isolated.
This process will not happen over night, but Thursday’s historic vote was a big first step.