The Netherlands has played an instrumental role in America’s decision to take an active stand on discrimination against homosexuals in other countries. Years of lobbying and the positive results of the Dutch approach have convinced the US to follow suit.
Boris Dittrich, an expert on sexual minorities at Human Rights Watch, and Björn van Roozendaal of Dutch gay rights movement COC Nederland are convinced that the Netherlands has inspired the US to make this week’s resolute statements on gay rights. In particular the use of a toolkit, a set of instruments and instructions for embassy personnel, are measures conceived in the Netherlands.
“US ambassadors abroad often see how Dutch ambassadors offer support to local gay rights groups, and with encouraging results,” Boris Dittrich explains. “That is why the Netherlands is often referred to in the US as an example in combating discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals.”
The new US policy was announced this week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She called on governments worldwide to protect the rights of homosexuals and transsexuals, and to begin by decriminalising homosexuality.
Clinton emphasised that gay rights are also human rights and that homosexuality is not a Western fabrication but a human reality. The Americans want to halt discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals through development aid and diplomacy.
Boris Dittrich and Björn van Roozendaal are pleased with this historic step in US human rights policy. They are also cautiously optimistic.
“It’s vital to remember that the starting point for this policy has to be the gay community itself. You need to talk to the lesbian and gay movement in every country and work out how best to achieve results, not simply charge in like a bulldozer. On the African continent for example, waltzing in like that can backfire,” warns Björn van Roozendaal of COC.
Boris Dittrich continues, “What worries me is that governments frequently refer to homosexuality as a Western concept. Human Rights Watch often hears this in Africa, in the Caribbean or in Asia where homosexual acts are still punishable by law. So America needs to avoid the pitfall of claiming too much credit. That can give rise to the notion that it’s something the West is trying to impose on other countries.”
Carrot or stick
Another fear is that the US will make future development aid dependent on how a possible recipient handles gay rights. Boris Dittrich and Björn van Roozendaal do not think this is likely, but offer a word of warning nonetheless.
“The result of linking aid to positive behaviour is that the gay movements in a country could end up taking the blame if the development aid dries up. That would be a huge step backwards for gay rights organisations in Islamic or African countries, which are only just beginning to find their feet along with other human rights organisations,” says Van Roozendaal.
Boris Dittrich believes it’s not by punishing negative behaviour but by rewarding positive behaviour that the US can bring about change: the carrot, not the stick. Moreover, this should primarily be done by forming links with human rights organisations in the countries themselves and not exclusively with gay rights movements. He advocates forming broad coalitions and appealing to the middle ground in society in order to convince them that homosexuals are ordinary people who share the same human rights as everyone else.