As of Monday, foreign diplomats and foreign staffers assigned to the United Nations in New York need to be married — and not just in a domestic partnership — in order to obtain a visa for their partner to enter the United States.
The new rule, which affects what are known as G-4 diplomatic visas, will affect roughly 110 diplomats and their families, according to the State Department. The department says that it began the process of informing foreign missions of the coming changes in July.
Foreign domestic partners of diplomats and UN staffers must now show the State Department proof of marriage by the end of the year or be forced to leave within 30 days, Foreign Policy reported on Monday.
US officials said in a call with reporters on Tuesday that the change is meant to streamline the rules the State Department has put into place based on the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. Under those rules, US diplomats must now be married to their spouses in order for them to be able to posted overseas together. Those rules will now be applied as well to diplomats entering the US, according the State Department.
In countries where same-sex marriage is not legal, but domestic partnerships are, the rule will still allow diplomats to bring their partners to the US under an exemption.
Critics, however, have pointed out that very few of the UN’s 193 member states fully recognize same-sex marriage. And while US officials noted that it would be possible for diplomats already in the US to marry their partner — which the State Department would then recognize, and provide an update to their visa — opponents of the decision noted that doing so may expose a diplomat from a country where same-sex marriage is criminalized to greater risk.
Former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power tweeted on Friday, when the news of the change first broke, that the new policy is “needlessly cruel and bigoted.”
“This is an unconscionable, needless attack on some LGBTQ diplomats from around the world, and it reflects the hostility of the Trump-Pence administration toward LGBTQ people,” David Stacy, the director of government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “It is unnecessary, mean-spirited, and unacceptable. The White House must immediately go back to a policy that is fully inclusive and takes into account the dangers faced by LGBTQ foreign diplomats, U.N. employees, and their families.”
“This is not an attack. It’s not meant to be an attack; it's not punitive,” a State Department official insisted to reporters in response to the criticism.
A fight over just which couples would be eligible for partner benefits divided the UN in 2015, with Russia and China on the one side and the US and its allies on the other. In the end, a Russian resolution attempting to curtail former secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s directive opening up benefits to the same-sex partners of UN officials failed by a wide margin.
Those policies remain in place, a spokesperson for Secretary General António Guterres told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
“The previous SG’s order is still in effect, and UN policies towards same-sex staff members does [sic] not change,” Farhan Haq wrote in an email, confirming that the US first reached out on the issue in July. “We would need to comply with [the US’s new] regulation, as we would have to do with visa regulations in other states where our staff serve.”
The UN has provided a bulletin to staff to explain just how the changes might affect them and their partners, Haq said.
The protections that the State Department has said would protect the partners’ of diplomats, however, don't appear to apply to UN staffers.
“With this change, the State Department is enforcing parity in the way they recognize opposite-sex partnerships and same-sex partnerships,” UN Globe, an organization for LGBTI staffers at the UN, said in a statement released Friday. “It is an unfortunate change in rules, since same-sex couples, unlike opposite-sex couples, have limited choices when it comes to marriage.”