Are business leaders ensuring respect for LGBT rights?

Commentary, 14 December 2011

By Kathryn Dovey, Manager, National Contact Point Coordination, OECD

There clearly is a global trend towards greater recognition of LGBT rights.

"60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups.

"Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity…Being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

- Hillary Clinton, Remarks in Recognition of International Human Rights Day, 6 December 2011

Last week, to mark International Human Rights Day, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech recognizing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights as human rights.

Reactions to the speech within the human rights and LGBT communities were extremely positive with many recognising this as a brave and vital statement.

At the same time, some US-based organisations and Republican presidential candidates criticized Clinton’s remarks. In Africa, two countries reacted particularly negatively: Uganda which may still pass a bill which makes some homosexual acts punishable by death and Nigeria which is in the process of creating a law to punish gay marriage or gay relationships with a 14-year prison sentence.

But there clearly is a global trend towards greater recognition of LGBT rights. Clinton’s statement came six months after the UN Human Rights Council passed its first ever resolution addressing sexual minorities. The resolution was proposed by South Africa (whose 1996 constitution was the first in the world to recognize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation) and passed with 23 votes in favour and 19 against. It followed a March 2011 statement supported by a total of 85 states.

In spite of these global developments, however, the world is not yet united on the issue of LGBT rights.

There are currently 76 countries where local laws are still used to persecute and prosecute people who happen to be gay. Most of the laws carry significant prison sentences and 5 of the 76 countries impose the death penalty.1

What do these varying legal and cultural challenges to LGBT rights mean for the business and human rights agenda?

Many business leaders recognize the need to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender identity and provide a safe working environment for their LGBT staff. This includes having in place policies and programs for preventing discrimination, providing benefits for same-sex spouses, ensuring a safe workplace, as well as understanding the needs of LGBT parents, LGBT customers and suppliers as well and supporting local LGBT community groups as part of wider civic engagement efforts. At a minimum, local laws in 54 countries ensure that discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation is prohibited (although only 19 countries prohibit discrimination based on gender identity).

One of the most challenging issues for businesses is the implementation of their commitments to LGBT equality on a global scale. In January 2012 the UK-based organisation Stonewall will publish its annual Workplace Equality Index, which includes the Top 100 employers list, benchmarking companies on the basis of their policies and practices regarding LGBT staff. For the first time the criteria includes some optional questions about the global implementation of LGBT policies by UK-based companies.

Earlier this month the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in the US published its Corporate Equality Index, which looked at 636 US headquartered companies. The HRC survey asks companies how they integrate their policies globally but does not score them on the results. The report notes for instance that although companies may have global policies in place, Human Resources functions are often decentralised thus highlighting the need for non-discriminatory policies in every location.

The HRC also found that some companies provide training on sexual orientation and gender identity issues outside the US and that half of all businesses surveyed offer domestic partner health care benefits in all overseas locations. However, very few companies currently have policies in place to ensure the safety of their expatriate LGBT employees and their families upon relocation to hostile countries.

Business leaders from emerging and developing markets may face their own challenges in respecting LGBT rights and there is some evidence of the beginnings of a global debate on this topic. For instance, the organisation Out and Equal has been working for 14 years to bring equality to the workplace for LGBT employees. At their 2011 LGBT Workplace Summit, presenters brought their stories of workplaces in India, the Philippines, Singapore and Japan as well as Europe and North America. In 2012 the organisation will work with local partners to deliver the first ever Global LGBT Workplace Summit, which will take place in London to coincide with the London Olympics and World Pride.

Businesses headquartered in all regions will increasingly be challenged to clarify their stance on LGBT rights for their employees, customers, suppliers and indeed in the societies in which they operate.

As Desmond Tutu so rightly puts it:2

“Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people – they are our sons and daughters, our family and friends, our colleagues and co-workers. They are equal members of the human family.”

This is ultimately a question of dignity and respect and it is an issue that will increasingly land on the desks of business leaders across the globe. Are they ready to respond in ways that are consistent with their responsibility to respect all human rights?


1. Taken from the ILGA 2011 report: State-sponsored Homophobia: A world survey of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults

2. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s video address to the September 17, 2010 United Nations panel on decriminalising homosexuality.

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