The Pope’s Tone Softens — But The Vatican Is Still Fighting LGBT Rights Around The World

The battleground is the United Nations. “Today, the nature of the family is confused by so many … It is scandalous,” said the Holy See’s representative to the U.N. amid negotiations last month in New York.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

NEW YORK — Pope Francis’ softening tone on LGBT issues does not appear to have been matched by a meaningful shift in policy in the realm of international diplomacy.

In two recent confrontations at United Nations headquarters in New York, the Vatican — a “permanent observer” with the almost all the same right that states have to participate in debates and closed negotiations — has held a hard line in fighting to preserve a narrow definition of the word “family” in international law. (It is one of only two entities with this status; the other is Palestine.)

“I cannot see a change [in Holy See diplomacy] that has trickled down” since Francis became pope, said one diplomat from a country that supports LGBT rights who asked to speak anonymously to discuss closed negotiations.

LGBT activists and supportive diplomats have been squaring off against Vatican diplomats at the U.N. as long as LGBT rights under international law have been at issue. And under Francis, the Holy See continues to play its longstanding role: inspiring opposition to LGBT rights proposals, crafting strategy, and articulating principles of international law to justify their exclusion.

On March 19, the Holy See co-sponsored a public event at the U.N. headquarters in New York with Belarus, Qatar, Indonesia, and the Arizona-based group Family Watch International, which describes its mission as promoting “the family based on marriage between a man and a woman as the societal unit that provides the best outcome for men, women and children.” It was focused on making the case that the family should be prioritized in economic development strategy, but the head of the Holy See’s U.N. mission, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, was explicit that concerns about the definition of “the family” were also very much on his mind.

“The family, as a union of husband and wife, in which the children are born and raised as the first community of society is a concept that until very recently in human history was shared in all types of societies whether religious or not religious,” Chullikatt said. “Today, the nature of the family is confused by so many … It is scandalous that the very institution or unit that is most important to these discussions and policy decisions is considered unwelcome.”

The event was held just as negotiations on the Agreed Conclusions of the 2014 meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women were getting serious. The writing of the Agreed Conclusions is the focus of the two-week event, because it is the declaration of the global situation for women and girls and lays out principles to drive policy development. Nations including Brazil, the Philippines, Israel, and the U.S. had proposed language on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, while countries like Belarus, Qatar, and Russia had proposed language on “the family.” The “family” language was mostly in the context of economic development, but delegations supporting LGBT rights wanted this broadened to “the family” and additional language acknowledging that “various forms of the family exist.”

Though the Holy See had not put its name on any formal amendments to the Agreed Conclusions, its representatives had been vocal about concerns about the potential for expanding LGBT rights throughout the meeting, according to participants in closed-door negotiations speaking on background. In a discussion about a parallel resolution about women and HIV, a Holy See representative opposed language on comprehensive sexuality education in part because it could allow teaching about LGBT rights, and the issue also infused discussions about language referring to “sexual and reproductive health and rights,” say LGBT advocates in the process.

Fights over sexuality and family language kept delegates late into the night of the final vote at the U.N. headquarters. Conservative nations largely carried the day in the Agreed Conclusions — they kept out the nondiscrimination language backed by LGBT advocates, and won references to “the family.” But they were steamrolled on the HIV resolution, which ultimately included reference to “comprehensive evidence-based education for human sexuality” and other language the Holy See opposed. Some observing the open voting session burst into applause when the chair of the meeting denied a Holy See representative a right to protest after they lost key votes, according to LGBT advocates in attendance.

“They become a motivation force and a strategic influence on states that they have close relationships with,” said Cynthia Rothschild, a longtime advocate on LGBT and women’s issues at the U.N. who was consulting for the Dutch LGBT organization COC-Netherlands at the CSW meeting. “That’s not to say that states are the pawns of the Holy See, because there are plenty of states that make the same claims without [their] direct influence … [But] the Holy See has such a longstanding breadth of experience in opposing these issues that becomes useful for governments that want to take conservative positions.”

The Holy See appeared to take a more direct leadership role in the fall, when the General Assembly considered a resolution on the rights of women human rights advocates, according to draft proposals and sources in closed negotiations speaking on background. Norway, which sponsored the resolution, had included a paragraph urging states to “promote and protect the human rights of all women including their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality.” In its written comments on the resolution, according to negotiation documents obtained by BuzzFeed, the Holy See proposed striking the whole paragraph.

The Holy See also proposed several other changes, including replacing all references to “gender” to “men and women” and proposing activists only be protected if they are defending “universally recognized human rights” — a roundabout way of excluding those working on contentious rights issues including LGBT rights and reproductive rights, say advocates who oppose the language.

Madeleine Sinclair, who advocated for the resolution with the organization International Service for Human Rights, said arguments by the Holy See over the document seemed to establish talking points for other states in opposition to these elements of the resolution.

“It was disturbing to hear that some of the more regressive positions being pushed by the Holy See in the negotiations were being echoed verbatim by other states such as the African Group in subsequent meetings,” Sinclair said in an email. (The African Group, made up of all the African states, often take joint positions, though the bloc includes South Africa, which has been a leader on LGBT rights.) “The Holy See happens to be the governing body of a major world religion and as such wields a particularly unique influence among some of the other states it finds itself at the table with. What is concerning is to see that influence used to lobby and pressure countries with significant Catholic populations and sometimes hostile societal attitudes to adopt regressive positions.”

Archbishop Chullikatt declined to comment on his delegation’s negotiating positions in a brief interview during the CSW negotiations, saying, “It is an ongoing discussion that has been going on for years … Just like anybody else, we are part of this discussion — there is nothing wrong with that.”

But Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, an advocacy group that opposes LGBT and abortion rights in international agreements, said LGBT advocates are scapegoating the Holy See when in reality there is broad-based support for excluding sexual orientation and gender identity language.

“The Holy See is an easy target but the fact of the matter is there is no real interest in accepting [sexual orientation and gender identity] language in U.N. documents,” Ruse said. “Opposition to [this] language is widespread and includes nations from every continent. I cannot speak for the Holy See but from experience over years at the U.N., the Holy See is nothing more or less than a part of a coalition of states advancing what they believe is right.”

The Holy See’s leadership role in New York may not be matched by its delegation in Geneva, which is the seat of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Beginning about five years ago, say multiple diplomats and LGBT advocates who focus on the Council, the Holy See shifted into a less conspicuous role in negotiations as forces like Russia, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (often driven by Egypt and Pakistan), and a Nigerian-lead coalition of African states have been the face of opposition to LGBT rights proposals. But this began well before Francis became pope, and none who spoke with BuzzFeed had noticed any significant recalibration since his election in 2013.

The Holy See has been on record as opposing “unjust discrimination” against “homosexual persons” and criminal sodomy laws since 2008. This has not been universally accepted by the bishops — recently, the Catholic leadership of Nigeria and Uganda have welcomed passage of their new laws imposing extreme prison sentences for homosexuality.

But for as long as there have been serious efforts to introduce LGBT rights into U.N. agreements, the Holy See has worried that any such clause could be the beginning of a slippery slope to advance marriage rights.

In a statement opposing an unsuccessful 2003 resolution on sexual orientation and human rights, the Holy See argued that this attempt to make sexual orientation “an interpretive tool of human rights … appears to be a preliminary step to claiming equal treatment regarding ‘marriage’ for persons of the same sex and regarding adoption for ‘unisex households.’”

More recently, the Holy See has based its opposition on the argument that LGBT people’s right to life and equal protection before the law are already protected under established human rights law. Adding a new protected class would only undermine “universally recognized human rights,” it argued in a document entitled “Note on the Project of Resolution of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights concerning ‘Sexual orientation’ and Discrimination,” a copy of which was seen by BuzzFeed.

On this basis, it opposed language condemning homophobic or transphobic killings proposed in a 2010 General Assembly Resolution on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, the head of the Holy See’s mission to the U.N. argued, “The adopted resolution should focus on protecting persons, and not be clouded by undefined categories.” Including sexual orientation and gender identity — which had not been used in other U.N. agreements — “can give rise to serious uncertainty in the law as well as undermine the ability of States to enter into and enforce new and existing human rights standards,” he said.

To date, only two major proposals referencing sexual orientation have passed U.N. bodies: the 2012 version of the Resolution on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, and a 2011 resolution sponsored by South Africa in the Human Rights Council commissioning a study of human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, which included strong language in part because some of the leading opponents of the resolution boycotted negotiations.

Confrontations over LGBT rights will almost certainly grow more frequent and more intense. Though U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly not raise the issue in his meeting last week with Pope Francis, LGBT rights are becoming more central to the human rights agendas of the U.S. and Western Europe, while opposition to them seems to be growing in many other parts of the world. And the Holy See seems to remain firmly aligned with hardliners in diplomatic negotiations that get little public attention even as Pope Francis makes statements toward reconciliation with LGBT people.

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