International Human Rights Defense Act

The International Human Rights Defense Act of 2015 would build an unprecedented framework into U.S. diplomacy to protect LGBTQ rights worldwide.

In the 116th Congress: H.R. 1857; S. 861 

The Problem

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people around the world continue to face discrimination, violence, and bigotry. Sixty-nine countries criminalize same-sex sexual relations. That means that more than one-third of United Nations Member States criminalize consenting, adult, same-sex sexual relations. In up to nine countries, same-sex sexual relations may be punishable by death, and so-called anti-LGBTQ “propaganda” laws inhibit LGBTQ advocacy in at least three countries.

Reports from various governments, international bodies, watchdogs, and advocacy organizations have documented hostility toward LGBTQ citizens in every region of the world. These violations include murder, rape, torture, death threats, extortion, imprisonment, and loss of employment and access to health care, as well as restrictions on freedoms of assembly, press, and speech.

What is the International Human Rights Defense Act?

The International Human Rights Defense Act would build a framework into U.S. diplomacy to protect LGBTQ rights worldwide. The bill would make preventing and responding to discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community a foreign policy priority and permanently create a Special Envoy within the State Department who would serve as principal advisor to the Secretary of State on LGBTQ issues. The Special Envoy would, among other duties, coordinate LGBTQ policies for all bureaus and offices of the State Department and in the international programs of other federal agencies; represent the United States in diplomatic matters relevant to the human rights of LGBTQ people; and work to ensure that the needs of LGBTQ people seeking resettlement and protection are incorporated into federal government policy. 

In addition, the Special Envoy would be responsible for developing and helping implement a U.S. global strategy to prevent and respond to discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people. The Special Envoy would be tasked with monitoring and assessing the impact of government programs and policies in advancing LGBTQ rights abroad. 

Although then-Secretary of State John Kerry appointed the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons in 2015, that appointment has not been codified into law and has not been filled by the current administration, despite promises to do so. The International Human Rights Defense Act would make the position statutory which would prevent any current or future Administration from being able to eliminate it.

Finally, the bill would require the State Department to include LGBTQ human rights as a required section in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. While that has been State Department practice for a number of years, it is subject to the whims of each administration and is by no means guaranteed. Indeed, the most recent report pared back references to societal (rather than state-sponsored) persecution of LGBTI persons, highlighting the importance of codifying this section of the report.

What was the Status of the Bill in the 116th Congress?

In the 116th Congress, the International Human Rights Defense Act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and in the Senate by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) on March 25, 2019. 

What is the Current Status of the Bill?

The International Human Rights Defense Act has yet to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress.

For more information, please contact Read about other Federal Legislation pertinent to the LGBTQ community here.

Last Updated: January 26, 2021

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