US: What Can Global LGBT Rights Envoys Achieve in the Age of Trump?

A year ago this month, efforts to use high-profile diplomacy in the service of globalLGBT rights appeared to be gaining considerable momentum. At the United Nations, the Human Rights Council had selected Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand to serve as the first independent expert tracking violence and discrimination based on gender and sexual identity. And in Washington, Randy Berry was well into his second year as the State Department’s first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons. 

To mark the completion of Berry’s first year in that position, the Human RightsCampaign praised him as “a game changer for LGBT rights internationally” and called on future U.S. administrations “to ensure that his position is firmly established for many years to come.” With Hillary Clinton heavily favored to win the presidency, many assumed that was exactly what would happen.

Things are looking different today, and not just because of Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Donald Trump. Earlier this month, Muntarbhorn announced his resignation from the U.N. post, citing family and health reasons. Although the U.N. is moving quickly to identify a replacement to serve out the remainder of his three-year mandate, there is a general sense that Muntarbhorn’s departure is a blow. He combined a deep knowledge of the U.N. system—having worked on inquiries into Syria and Cote d’Ivoire, and as special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea—with a solid grounding in LGBT issues. And he had effectively weathered attacks on the LGBTrole from African states and other opponents. 

Berry, meanwhile, is today in the curious position of advocating for LGBT rights on behalf of an administration that has undermined them at home and, more broadly, called into question the entire enterprise of values promotion overseas. In a letter made public last month to Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the surprising disclosure that Berry’s position was being retained even as other special envoy roles were being eliminated, confirming a Foreign Policy report from earlier this year. But that doesn’t mean Berry will have any actual support from the State Department, or that LGBT activists will continue working with him.

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