I don’t think our country’s inconsistent interest in protecting LGBTQ civil rights will be a surprise to anyone reading this; after all, here in Virginia it’s legal for private businesses to fire LGBTQ workers due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. However, you would think the USA wouldn’t oppose condemning the state-sanctioned murder of members of the LGBTQ community… would you?
Believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened last Friday, as the United States joined 12 other countries in voting against a UN resolution, “The Question of the Death Penalty,” which opposed applying the death penalty “arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner.” The resolution condemned not only applying the death penalty towards those who engage in same-sex relations, but also levying the death penalty against adulterers, those under 18 at the time of their crime, pregnant women, persons with mental or physical difficulties, or those who could be classified as apostates (people who’ve renounced a religion) or blasphemers (those who’ve spoken disrespectfully of a particular religion).
The death penalty is currently imposed for same-sex relations in parts of Nigeria and Somalia, all of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen, and in territories currently controlled by the Islamic State, aka ISIS. A further five countries–Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–have laws which permit the death penalty to be applied for same-sex relations but have not, thus far, leveled the penalty for this reason. Of these five, two, Qatar and the UAE, joined the United States in voting against this resolution.
Heather Nauert of the US State Department explained the US vote during an October 3 press conference by saying, “We voted against that resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances, and it called for the abolition of the death penalty altogether” and went on to further say, “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 criminalization.”
While the “broader circumstances” cited by Nauert were not clarified in her statement, it doesn’t seem likely that the “abolition of the death penalty altogether” is the only issue the US government would have with “The Question of the Death Penalty.” For one, there’s the resolution’s condemnation of execution of persons under 18 at the time of their crime. We all know about people being “tried as an adult” despite being as young as 14 at the time of their crime’s commission. It was not until the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Roper v. Simmons in 2005 that applying the death penalty to those juveniles tried as adults became illegal. In the 20 years before that, nearly two dozen prisoners were executed for crimes they committed as juveniles, including a high school classmate of mine.
Then there’s the execution of persons with mental difficulties. Technically, it’s unconstitutional, due to the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that executing those with intellectual disabilities (specifically, those whose IQ was “approximately 70″ or below) was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. That said, at the state level, it’s still happening on occasion. For example, in Texas, IQ tests are not used by the legal system to determine whether prisoners are intellectually disabled. This has led to executions since the 2002 ruling of those whose IQ does not meet the Atkins v. Virginia standard, notably that of Marvin Wilson in 2012, an inmate whose IQ had been measured at 61.
Such facts highlight the reason that this resolution is just the latest in a series of anti-death penalty resolutions voted on by the UN that have not been supported by the US. In 2014, for example, the United States abstained from a vote on a similar resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council. In fact, the US has never voted for any UN resolution condemning the death penalty, though the decision to vote against rather than abstain from the vote is somewhat unusual.
It’s tough to say what this all means for LGBTQ people both within and outside of the United States’s borders. For now, though, the defense offered to the LGBTQ community by the US government certainly can’t be described as unequivocal.