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In his first major foreign policy speech, President Joe Biden committed the United States to advancing and defending the rights of LGBTQI+ people abroad, as part of a series of actions and initiatives designed to realign America’s foreign policy with respect for human rights and place increased emphasis on diplomacy.
Speaking at State Department headquarters, Biden outlined part of his agenda, indicating that he would sign a presidential memorandum calling for greater protections for LGBTQI+ people abroad, and promising to “restore leadership” on LGBTQI+ issues. According to a White House press release, the memorandum builds on guidance issued in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama, and directs federal agencies to speak out against human rights abuses and champion protections for LGBTQI+ people in other nations.
“Agencies engaged abroad are directed to strengthen existing efforts to combat the criminalization by foreign governments of LGBTQI+ status or conduct and expand efforts to combat discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance on the basis of LGBTQI+ status or conduct,” the memorandum states.
“The Department of State shall, on an annual basis and as part of the annual report submitted to the Congress…report on human rights abuses experienced by LGBTQI+ persons globally. This reporting shall include anti-LGBTQI+ laws as well as violence and discrimination committed by both state and non-state actors against LGBTQI+ persons.”
The memorandum also outlines how agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development programs will be expected to engage with government actors, business leaders, and civil society groups to promote respect for the LGBTQI+ community and fight discriminatory laws.
“Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development programs should consider the impact of programs funded by the Federal Government on human rights, including the rights of LGBTQI+ persons, when making funding decisions, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” it reads.
The memo also requires the State Department to lead a standing group aimed at ensuring the federal government can provide a “swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons abroad.”
“When foreign governments move to restrict the rights of LGBTQI+ persons or fail to enforce legal protections in place, thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance, agencies engaged abroad shall consider appropriate responses, including using the full range of diplomatic and assistance tools and, as appropriate, financial sanctions, visa restrictions, and other actions,” reads the memo.
Currently, 69 countries have laws criminalizing same-sex relations, with nine countries imposing the death penalties for such offenses. Three other nations have adopted anti-LGBTQI+ “propaganda” laws that effectively gag LGBTQI+ advocacy groups by prohibiting them from advocating for various topics ranging from nondiscrimination laws to recognition of LGBTQI+ families to health-related topics such as safer-sex practices and HIV prevention, based on specious claims that such topics are “propaganda” aimed at seducing or “recruiting” youth.
Biden also expressed his intention to raise the cap on refugees allowed to enter the United States from a low of 15,000 under the Trump administration to 125,000 in the 12-month period starting Oct. 1. That level must be approved by Congress, whom Biden indicated he would consult in his attempts to raise the cap.
Many LGBTQI+ advocates have noted that a higher cap would better protect LGBTQI+ refugees who come to the United States seeking asylum after having their lives threatened in countries where they enjoy no legal protections or face criminalization if deported back to their countries of origin.
To that end, Biden’s memorandum also directs the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to “enhance their ongoing efforts” to ensure LGBTQI+ refugees can seek asylum. The memo also calls for additional training so officials can better identify and respond to the specific needs of LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, and ensure those who would face certain death, persecution, or serious injury upon returning to their country of origin are not turned away because of anti-LGBTQI+ bias or the failure to recognize the severity of an asylum seeker’s claim.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement touting the memorandum, reiterating the administration’s view that “advancing human rights for all individuals, with no exception or caveat, is a U.S. foreign policy priority. ”
Blinken also noted that the State Department would work with Congress to provide $10 million in Fiscal Year 2021 funds for the Global Equality Fund, which provides assistance to human rights defenders and support to grassroots LGBTQI+ organizations.
“With today’s presidential memorandum, President Biden and Secretary Blinken recommit the United States to a foreign policy that protects and supports the human rights of LGBTQ people abroad,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement praising the memorandum.
“Around the world, many LGBTQ people still face discrimination, persecution and violence simply for who they are or who they love. We applaud the Biden administration and Secretary Blinken for making it clear that the United States is a nation that values LGBTQ people at home and abroad, and is willing to fight to ensure every person is able to live free and equal.”
Erin Uritus, the CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, praised Biden’s actions in a statement.
“When America is at its best, it leads with the dignity and human rights of all as our North Star,” Uritus said. “We know that there is a need to support LGBTQ refugees. We have seen neo-authoritarian leaders — in Turkey, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere — stoke hatred of the LGBTQ community in an effort to rile up their base. We also struggle with attacks on the LGBTQ community in the United States.
“Time and again, Out & Equal has worked with business leaders to stand for equality all around the globe,” she added. “President Biden’s action is an important signal that America is going to do more to defend equality.”
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