USA, Japan and China among 13 countries failing to support UN condemnation of the death penalty for homosexuality

Ibtisam Ahmed examines the voting patterns in a historic UN resolution supporting LGBTQ+ rights.


On 29 September, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution which condemned the use of the death penalty for homosexuality. It was an important moment, with 27 member states voting in favour of the statement with 7 abstentions. But it is the 13 votes against that highlight how far LGBTQ+ rights still have to go, including the worrying “no” votes from the USA, Japan and China.

At the time of the vote, six international jurisdictions implement the death penalty along with the regions of Iraq and Syria currently under Islamic State control. These are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, with the first four applying it nationwide and the latter two in specific provinces. Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar and the UAE can also apply the death penalty depending on how their local courts interpret the law.

The 13 votes against the resolution consisted of countries where the death penalty is practised, countries where homosexuality is illegal, or a combination of both. Of the states previously mentioned, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were part of the vote and voted “no”. Also voting “no” were Bangladesh, Botswana, Burundi, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Japan and the USA. All but three of these member states continue to criminalise same-sex intimacy – but it is the three states where this is not the case which are of particular concern; namely, China, Japan and the USA.

The major takeaway from the decision is how LGBTQ+ rights are secondary to other political concerns. All three “no” votes from countries where homosexuality is not a crime are major players on the global stage. All three are also keen to ensure they stay on the right side of their allies. It is particularly important to note that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are considered vital power brokers in the Middle East, while India continues to be the single most important state in South Asia.

The US vote has come under specific scrutiny, including concerns by various advocacy groups. Ty Cobb, the director of HRC Global has pointed out the worrying backwards trend of the current administration in refusing to defend human and civil rights. The justification provided by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert is that the resolution broadly condemned the death penalty overall and called for its abolition altogether, even if the specific focus of it was in the question of LGBTQ+ rights.

Despite any other attempts to defend their actions – which neither China nor Japan have offered – the votes against must not be taken lightly. If a non-binding UN resolution which takes specific aim at protecting LGBTQ+ rights cannot muster support from countries which nominally support such rights within their own borders, more extensive campaigns which include LGBTQ+ rights within a wider humanitarian framework are likely to face an even tougher fight. If targeted interventions are at jeopardy, intersectional policies are inevitably going to fail. We must not let this happen.

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