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Following Backlash, US Clarifies UN Vote on 'Death Penalty for Gays'

by John Paul Brammer /
The United Nations emblem is seen in front of the United Nations Office (UNOG) on June 8, 2008 in Geneva, Switzerland.Johannes Simon / Getty Images

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Following an outcry from LGBTQ rights advocates, the U.S. Department of State clarified its "no" vote on a United Nations resolution condemning the death penalty for "same-sex relations" and other acts.

The resolution, titled "The Question of the Death Penalty," passed the U.N. Human Rights Council with 27 nations voting in favor, 13 voting against and seven abstentions. The multi-page resolution condemned the imposition of the death penalty when "applied arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner" and specifically condemned "the imposition of the death penalty as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations."

In a press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explained why the U.S. voted against the resolution.

"We voted against that resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances," Nauert said. "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.”

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., also responded to the backlash following the death penalty vote. In a tweet, Haley said there was "NO vote by USUN that supported the death penalty for gay people," adding, "We have always fought for justice for the LGBT community."

In a separate tweet, Haley also noted that the U.S. voted "no" to the resolution under the Obama administration, though the specific mention of "same-sex relations' was not included in previous death penalty resolutions.

Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, a global LGBTQ human rights organization, acknowledged the U.S. vote on the U.N. resolution was misconstrued.

"There's been some misreporting and misconceptions," Stern told NBC News. "The U.S. always opposes this death penalty resolution, because it makes reference to a global moratorium on the death penalty. For both Obama and Trump, so long as the death penalty is legal in the U.S., it takes this position."

"OutRight will call out the Trump administration on its many rights violations, its many abuses of power from LGBTI violations to xenophobia, but this particular instance is not an example of a contraction of support on LGBTI rights," Stern continued. "It would be a mistake to interpret its opposition to a death penalty resolution to a change in policy."

National LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which initially condemned the U.S. vote on the death penalty resolution, said in a released statement it welcomes the clarification but remains "concerned about the Trump/Pence administration's engagement on the human rights of LGBTQ people abroad."

"It is disturbing that leadership in this administration did not discuss this position in their original explanation for the 'no' vote," the HRC statement continued.

Related: US No Longer Playing Lead Role in UN's LGBTQ Human Rights Group

Some LGBTQ advocates are not satisfied with the clarification put forth by the State Department. Ryan Thoreson, a researcher at the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said the unwillingness of the U.S. to broadly condemn the death penalty has negative effects for LGBTQ people.

"The death penalty is an LGBTQ issue, and you see that in the way it's applied in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and other places where the penalty for same-sex activity is death," Thoreson explained. "When the U.S. is not willing to call that out, even in an unobjectionable resolution like this, it signals a kind of tolerance for the death penalty that should worry LGBTQ people."

Homosexuality is illegal in more than 70 nations and 13 of them implement the death penalty for homosexual acts, according to a 2016 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

"If you care about LGBTI rights and you care about the rights of minority groups, you should be against the death penalty," Stern said, adding that the Trump administration has been floundering on domestic and international LGBTQ issues. As examples, she cited the administration's reversal on Obama-era transgender protections and the lack of condemnation coming from the administration following reports of an anti-gay purge in Chechnya.

"We have clear examples on how this administration's support for LGBTI rights hasn't been there," Stern concluded.

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