UN LGBT Staff Still Fighting for Equal Benefits

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Sept. 1, 2015 – In July 2014, Ban Ki-moon issued an administrative directive to extend entitlement benefits to UN employees who are in legally-recognized same-sex unions, not just those from countries where same-sex marriages are legal – which had been the standing UN policy.

While Russia attempted to torpedo Ban’s ruling, the General Assembly’s budget committee voted down Moscow’s draft resolution to overturn the UN chief’s directive in March this year.

But not all UN agencies and programs are following Ban’s ruling – which technically applied only to Secretariat staff – including, crucially, the UN’s pension fund. The fund still only recognize spouses of same-sex partners if they come from one of the 20 countries worldwide that recognize same-sex unions.

“This is something we’re trying very hard to change,” said Hyung Hak Nam in an interview with UN Tribune. Hyung Hak is president of UN-Globe, an advocacy group fighting for equality and non-discrimination for LGBT staff in the UN system and peacekeeping operations.

“This is a huge issue because pension is a key component of any benefits package for any job,” Hyung Hak said, adding that the pension fund, the UN-JSPF, is not following what is in place for most of the UN system – that your same-sex spouse is your legal beneficiary.

“You’re married to someone then you die then your spouse will not be eligible for any spousal benefits, which straight married couples would automatically get without any questions asked,” Hyung Hak said of the current rules governing the UN’s pension fund. “Basically if you are from the right country, for example Spain, they will recognize your marriage but if you’re from Belarus, for example, they will not recognize your same-sex marriage.

Parental leave is another issue where UN-Globe are advocating for change. “It’s basically gendered,” Hyung Hak said. “The mother gets 16 weeks, the father eight weeks, or four [depending on the UN agency].”

“When you have, for example, a gay couple and both are male and they have a baby through surrogacy because of this policy that differentiates between mothers and fathers they would only qualify for the 4 or 8 weeks,” he said. “It’s not in line with the expanding notion of what the family is or the composition of the family.”

Hyung Hak pointed out that this policy also affects single fathers who adopt and that some UN agencies also give longer parental leave to mothers who give birth naturally over those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption.

There are other areas too where LGBT staff face hurdles, Hyung Hak explains.

“Most of the agencies of the UN have a mobility policy, we are expected to be able to serve wherever an organization needs you,” he says, giving the example of Nairobi, Kenya where the UN has its headquarters for Africa.

“It is considered a family duty station. Staff who move there receive an entitlement to move the entire family from New York to Nairobi. Since the Kenyan government won’t give residency visas to same sex-spouses, what a lot of LGBTI staff members are faced with is moving by themselves, or finding other means, such as pretending the same sex spouse is a sibling or a domestic servant” and obtaining the appropriate visa.

He also says that gay staff members who are unable to bring their spouse to duty stations hostile to LGBT people should receive a hardship allowance as staff members receive when they serve in places such as Darfur, Sudan and Afghanistan.

“If a gay staff member has to move to Uganda [where the UN has a regional hub] by himself he’s doing it under conditions of hardship. We want the UN to recognize this. We don’t want the UN the to say Uganda is a family duty station. We want the UN to give credit to the staff member, to get credit for moving to Uganda leaving his family behind. We want the staff member to get credit for having served in a hardship duty station,” Hyung Hak said.

He added that while the UN leadership has been supportive of LGBT issues and LGBT staff praise Ban for his leadership, that when it comes to dealing with member states on issues, for example, visas, the UN could do more.

“You’re dealing with a member state and the UN has always been very cautious in its dealings with member states,” Hyung Hak said.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz