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RGOD2: "A week is a long time in politics"

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s famous phrase, "a week is a long time in politics," rings true for me as I write this column from New York. It began on Monday evening with President Bill Clinton recognizing the universal contribution that Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and Pepe Julius Onziema have made for the rights of LGBT people.

The Global Citizen Award, presented to the Ugandan leaders at a star-studded ceremony in New York and witnessed by 1,200 leaders in industry, philanthropy and heads of state, was the first time the Clinton Global Initiatives network (representing almost $80 billion investment in domestic and overseas development) recognized the invaluable contribution of LGBT people around the world.

The bishop compared the awards ceremony to his marriage 48 years ago – “a holy moment,” he said, while calling for the legalization of love around the world.

Pepe said he received the award on behalf of Uganda, Africa and the LGBT community who still suffer the humiliation and economic deprivation through criminalization in 76 countries.

Many well educated and traveled supporters of President Clinton’s movement to bring justice and relief to an unequal world appeared stunned at what they heard from the bishop and Pepe. The three-day conference focused on the rights and economic development of women and young girls, how technology can build a truly global community where compassionate capitalism can save lives and how improved health delivery systems can create sustainable development so countries can pull their people out of poverty and injustice.

Implications for your tax dollars spent abroad

Earlier in the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out a template for U.S. foreign aid and how the interdependence of business investment in countries needed to be strengthened. Aid had to be tied to measurable outcomes and a way to prime the pumps of local innovation and sound economic strategies, so this generous American investment could help people into a sustainable and secure future.

With additional speeches from the Secretary General of the United Nations and President of the World Bank, the Clinton Global Initiative attracts some of the most powerful people and organizations in the world to work for change through co-operation and application of business models.

For example, when a country’s health supply system was so broken that it could take up to a month to get medicine and health supplies to community clinics and hospitals causing unnecessary suffering and death, the Clinton Global Initiative invited Coca Cola (the world’s most successful distribution giant) to work with government and design a supply system that reduced the maximum delay to five days.

This kind of public/private investment, where civil society, government and the private sector could come up with specific solutions to large scale problems provides a global forum to tackle major human problems and predict others (i.e. like how we are going to feed 8 billion people on this planet in a few years time?) This well-oiled engine of creative problem solving now includes LGBT people for the first time ever.

Foreign policy under Romney – the role of the Religious Right

The next morning, following the awards ceremony, Mitt Romney had the opportunity to roll out his proposed foreign policy to this distinguished audience. Again, like Secretary Clinton, he stressed the need for greater investment by the private sector as a long-term solution for these larger problems for the world.

On the surface, it appeared there was agreement from the Obama and Romney camps on the targeting of future U.S. aid to incubating long term economic investment, until he mentioned pastor Rick Warren as an example of good American global development! The hair on the back of my neck reacted.

The model Romney was using sounded something like this: “The U.S. will promote private enterprise allowing businesses go into developing countries to do whatever they want and create jobs for people (with minimal regulation) while the faith-based community would take care of the left-overs.”

By invoking Warren as his only example of good American overseas aid strategy, Romney had just reinforced the “soup-kitchen model” of religious charity with its ultimate goal to win souls for Jesus. This is certainly not my form of Christianity, and there are millions like me.

To secure the votes of more American evangelicals, it sounds as if a deal has been made to allow faith-based charities in the USA to funnel billions of dollars in aid to churches in Africa and beyond, to care for AIDS orphans, build hospitals, create small church social service programs and educate millions of children.

If we want to predict what this will look like, we need to go no further than to look at the effects of international faith-based initiatives during the eight long years of the George W. Bush Administration. Americans, apparently suffering from collective amnesia, has wiped this traumatic era from their minds when we were not only at war for the wrong reasons but under Bush’s faith-based programs, family planning programs abroad were shredded, HIV interventions were reduced to “abstinence only” models and the current wave of global homophobia was unleashed from American evangelical churches globally.

Where did Ugandan theocrats like the Rev. Martin Ssempa and MP David Bahati get their head start in Ugandan political life but through these faith-based AIDS programs. With the blessing of pastor Rick Warren and other American evangelical organizations, this largely underground movement secured millions of dollars in government contracts abroad. Churches in Africa and elsewhere hit a gold mine and it was not in the long-term interests of these communities, but was often at the expense of a private foreign policy of religious extremists who were frustrated in their attempts to create God’s kingdom on Earth. If they could not do it in godless America, then Africa was an easy and vulnerable target.

The holy rollers and the gravy train

At a recent meeting in Georgetown University during the International AIDS Conference, the President of World Vision appeared with Rick Warren to once again to support an “abstinence only” strategy that we know has failed in places like Uganda. As the HIV infection rate soars through these failed policies, some leading American faith-based charities would rather support a theological and biblical interpretation of sexual behavior over a more scientific evidence-based approach.

Where the vast majority of religious organizations in 76 countries support the status quo that homosexuality should be criminalized, this often translates into lack of access to prevention and health services for millions of LGBT people. How can we give public funds to organizations that are working against universal access to health care?

Rick Warren, on the one hand, provides support and resources for the care of orphans and alleviation of suffering in places like Rwanda and Uganda but his reluctance to come out against the criminalization of homosexuality and his support of “ex-gay” therapy is a big problem. To use his positive work while being blind to his negative impact on the lives of millions of people was another Romney faux pas. The media did not hear it.

However, combined with the recent disclosure from a Republican platform policy document that a Romney Administration would not object to 76 countries continuing to criminalize homosexuality and not intervene in places like Uganda (as President Barack Obama and Clinton have done) this is troubling U-turn for our investment in sound human rights and HIV policies.

UN Human Rights Council votes on “traditional values” and human rights

This week ended with Thursday’s troubling news from the United Nations Human Rights Council where Russia proposed a resolution that would allow countries to claim “traditional values” have more moral authority that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would give countries like Russia, Uganda and Iran an “out” as they are criticized for their abuse of their LGBT citizens.

The vote (25 in favor, 15 against and 7 abstentions) was a wake- up call for all of us that a human rights framework only can only go so far.

Yesterday’s vote sent shock waves through the human rights community because we anticipate it will be used against citizens in these countries to further silence them and isolate them for the international community. The consequences for the decades of hard work towards gender equality could be even more damaging.

The intention of the original UN document was to expand the understanding of human rights using religious and cultural values rather than to shrink our understanding. It’s intention was not to give an opt out clause to countries who have been heavily criticized by their international peers for the lack of protection for all their citizens and giving them equal access to health, education and opportunity based on gender or sexual orientation. The opportunity to expand traditional values to include women and LGBT people is still before us though there are efforts to undo Russia’s devious strategy which may take up to a year.

John Fisher, of ARC International who campaigns for LGBT rights at the UN, said:

“This resolution elevates traditional values as a principle of international human rights law and to use it as means of imposing the values of the state in a manner which is inconsistent with the universal declaration of human rights.

This is part of a negative agenda of Russia to advance its own conservative perspectives on what constitutes traditions and their relationship to human rights.

We believe that the United Nations should be devoted to uphold the principles of human rights and not enabling states to promote their own perspectives on morality and traditions that could be used to undermine human rights.”

It is now up to us

Rick Warren, Mitt Romney, World Vision and the majority of African Anglican and Roman Catholic archbishops and the governments they support now have a potential “breach in the dyke” of the human rights framework.

We anticipate this breach will undoubtedly be exploited in the year ahead to silence and punish those within their folds who may want to expand even the conversation about traditional values. On the other hand, Bishop Christopher represents a sector of the faith community who have come to an understanding of human rights and LGBT issues that can take a traditional value like “the golden rule” of loving ones neighbor, “doing unto others” and “compassion” (even to our enemies which is found in all religious belief systems) and making the circle wider.

“Traditional values” is a term that has also been co-opted by the Religious Right, and we need to reclaim it as we have done with “marriage” and “traditional families.” The vast majority of us are part of and came from these noble institutions and the Religious Right is wrong to rewrite us out of our own families, communities and traditions.

So, as we wake up to what a potential Romney foreign policy will look and feel like, or engage more deeply how traditional values can be used or misused in the year ahead, this is not the time to be complacent. I am confident that the intelligent and well connected “movers and shakers” who heard bishop Christopher and Pepe on Monday evening can figure more clearly what the Human Rights Council resolution might mean if an alternative voice of inclusion is not raised up.

It is up to us to expand the circle and welcome the opportunity to see where traditional values can support our emerging understanding of human rights and map out where they conflict. This is the challenging work of the Clinton Global Initiative and organizations like the UN and World Bank. We are now at the table in a deeper and more significant way and our presence is upsetting to some but certainly not to all. It was a long week in politics.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.