Thursday, March 22, 2012



That's the number of countries that criminalize homosexuality.  76 accounts for about 40% of the 193 states we have in the world today.  Together they have a population of well over a billion.  One seventh of the world's people live in these countries.  Crucially, these are places where for tens of millions of gay people, loving is illegal.

Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Dominica, Egypt...

All human beings have the right to live a private life free from arbitrary outside interference.  That private life includes our home, our family and the one we love.  Twenty years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that criminalization of private consensual homosexual acts violates this human right.  It affirmed that consensual sexual acts between persons of the same sex in private over the age of consent are not the business of a government.  Arguments that criminalization may be justified as “reasonable” on grounds of protection of public health (for example to prevent the spread of AIDS/HIV) or morals were not sufficient to displace this.  Today, there continue to be calls from the highest levels for the decriminalization of homosexuality across the world.

...Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia...

Many of these anti-homosexuality laws are left-over from colonial history.  A good portion of the 76 countries were once British colonies, an anti-sodomy law from Victorian England being imported wholesale into local penal codes.  Human Rights Watch has traced this into the current laws of more than 35 of these countries.  In an ironic twist, the laws are now frequently defended as protecting local and traditional society, culture and values.   French colonial law, Islamic Sharia law and South African Roman Dutch law have also all had influences in shaping these discriminatory rules.  Although different in origin, these laws share a common characteristic.  They all make homosexuality a crime, and this criminalization is used to harass and prosecute individuals because of their sexuality, in violation of their human rights.

...Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea...

Five of the 76 - Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen - execute people for being gay.  Two more have regions within their countries that have the death penalty.  Mauritania's penal code is graphic: "Any adult Muslim man who commits an impudent act against nature with an individual of his sex will face the penalty of death by public stoning."  Iran's gets straight to the point: "Punishment for sodomy is killing", though there is more nuance to the execution of lesbians: "If the act of lesbianism is repeated three lashes and punishment is enforced each time, death sentence will be issued the fourth time."   Reading these provisions of legislated hate is at once horrifying and chilling.  In her recent report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the abolition of the death penalty for offences involving consensual sexual relations, though any such repeal is unlikely in the near future.

...Qatar, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka...
Criminalization of homosexuality is not something confined to one region of the world.  It is illegal to be gay on a Caribbean island, in the savannah of East Africa, in the mountains of Central Asia, in the city-state of Singapore.  Further, criminalization is not something that is restricted to countries aligned to one religion.  Christian countries in Southern Africa and across the Pacific arrest and imprison lesbians.  Muslim countries in North Africa and West Asia convict and punish gay men. Buddhist countries in South Asia continue to prohibit same-sex relationships.  All these countries make it legal to love your neighbor, but not your partner.
...Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Thankfully there are places where being gay is not criminalized. North America, Europe, Latin America and Australia are all obvious and good examples.  But so too are the 24 countries in the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation who show that being a Muslim country does not mean automatically making it illegal to be a homosexual.  India and Nepal - countries with large Hindu populations - have also both recently decriminalized homosexuality, showing that change can be global.  Ten years ago the list was much longer.  About a dozen countries - including China and the United States - have since decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults.  Looking to the future, five more (Mauritius, Nauru, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Seychelles) have publicly stated at the United Nations that they intend to follow suit.  For the sake of the human rights of tens of millions of people, we can only hope that more follow their lead.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Business as Usual

Yesterday, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its first Panel on "Ending Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity".

As expected, some Member States - many of those from the OIC and some from Africa - walked out in protest, leaving a few of their representatives to explain why.  Although seats were empty in the Council Chamber, many who remained noted that walking-out does not relieve those States of their obligations to protect Human Rights.

But after their departure, the lights dimmed and an inspiring video message from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was shown before panellists and governments made statements.  The whole three hour panel can be viewed here.

There are already summaries available of yesterday's proceedings.  Highlights included a moving statement by Germany on the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazi regime (found at 01:19:13) and a statement by a Dutch organization on the human rights violations suffered by transgender people.

A large number of countries wanted to speak, so many that there wasn't enough time for them all.  What was heartening was that the overwhelming majority were affirming of the importance of protecting the human rights of LGBT people.  Many of their statements are being posted on the United Nations website.  They can be also easily be found at the end of this blog or here.  Find your own country, or one that interests you, and see what they had to say.

The closing remarks by the Brazilian Ambassador struck a chord with many.   She declared, somewhat surprisingly, that the Panel should not be seen as an historic moment, but rather 'business as usual' for the Council, at the core of its ongoing work to protect the human rights of all people.

That statement was significant.  It affirmed what has always been the case: LGBT people are not looking for special consideration, nor are they trying to create new rights.  Rather, they want to remind the world that human rights exist for all people, and that all people need to be protected from violations.  That gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Walking Out on Human Rights

In ten days from now the United Nations will set aside thee hours to discuss the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

With so much in the western news on LGBT rights at the moment, it’s worth noting what this panel could have been about.  "Same-sex marriage", perhaps - a topic fought over in a few jurisdictions around the world, with recent developments in the United States and Brazil.  But it's not.  "Granting partnership rights to same sex couples", maybe - after all, it's a somewhat less controversial topic actively considered in many other regions.  But it isn't.

No.  This is a panel discussion on the application of human rights law to address incidents of violence, discriminatory laws and discriminatory practices against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity  - looking at things such as the criminality of homosexuality and violence carried out on LGBT people.  People like the gay girl in Cape Town who was "correctively" raped by men in her community.  Or like the two men in Iran sentenced to death simply for being with the person they love.  Basic human rights.  Fundamental human rights.  Rights to a private life.  To bodily integrity.  To life itself.

This panel has not been forced on the countries of the developing world by the "west".  The Panel is sponsored by Brazil and South Africa with the strong support of many other countries, including Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay.  55% of countries voting – and from all continents - voted in favour of the panel.

Nor is the panel composed of fringe progressives.  It will include a message from UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, a presentation UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and other respected human rights experts from Pakistan, Brazil, the United States and Sweden.

Despite the basic, impeachable level at which this panel operates, as it starts its discussion on Wednesday 7th March 2012, it is expected that up to half of the countries present will walk out of the room in protest.

They will argue that their culture is different.  They will say that their values are incompatible with this discussion.  They will point out that the world contains diverse views.

To some extent they will be right.

Cultures are different.  Values do vary.  People do hold different views.

But no matter how different we are, we should not forget what unites us.  We are all human beings, and all human beings have human rights.

In 1948, 48 governments of the world came together and declared that all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights.  Signed opposite the Eiffel Tower in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris - the city where the principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood first took hold - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the foundation on which we, the world's people in all our diversity, work to build communities that are fair and respectful of all.

As the Human Rights Council works to improve the protection of these fundamental principles of humanity, let's remember that LGBT rights are human rights.

Zoliswa Nkonyana, the girl from Cape Town, has a human right to live free from the fear of violation.  Thankfully South Africa has taken action to see that it is addressed.  Hamzeh Chavi and Loghman Hamzehpour, the two young men from Sardasht in Iran who fell in love, had human rights to live a private life and not have their lives taken from them.  The Iranian government, far from remedying the situation continues to enforce its laws against gays and lesbians.

There will be times to talk about same sex marriages and protection for domestic partners.  Those debates are happening already in many places around the world.  Many more will join soon, but others are nowhere near to having those discussions.  Let's talk about the absolute basics - the fundamentals - in the meantime.

Countries will stand up and walk out of the council chamber on 7th March, and they will be walking away from the basic principles of humanity.

I hope they stay.  I hope they listen.  And I hope, whatever happens, that maybe this discussion will be the start of change.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Good week or bad week?

It's been a great week for the human rights of LGBT folk with both a federal court of appeal win on the Proposition 8 case in San Francisco, and also the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Washington State by legislators in Olympia.  This is so exciting and important!  So much progress has been made on so many fronts.

But I can't help thinking that it's been a bad week too, and a bad week in places where things are bad already.

Fly across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco or Olympia and you get to Indonesia where the human rights of LGBT citizens are impacted this week by the blocking of the website of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.  In a case of apparent state censorship, it is being listed as "pornographic".  I can confirm that you should feel free to click on their website in front of your grandma.  This organization is dedicated to human rights advocacy on behalf of people who experience discrimination or abuse on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.  While Indonesia is not the worst place for LGBT people - it has not, for example, criminalized same-sex sexual activity (other than in the strongly Muslim province of Aceh) - that's about as good as it gets for the millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the world's fourth largest country.  There is no protection against discrimination, no protection for same-sex couples, and traditional Indonesian society finds LGBT practices abhorrent.  So there's a lot to do.  These days Indonesia is in many wonderful ways a shining beacon of democracy in South-East Asia.  But the censorship of an organization working to protect the rights of some of its vulnerable citizens fundamentally undermines basic democratic principles.

Fly a few thousand miles to the west across the Indian Ocean, and things get truly awful.  The anti-gay bill is back on the table in Kampala.  Shelved after some parliamentary floor-time last year, the first draft of the legislation infamously contained a provision for the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.  Although that specific provision is now removed there remains clause after clause of legislated hate.  You only have to read its provisions to realise how truly horrifying it is.  This is law-making at its most hideous.  Thankfully, the efforts to push through this odious piece of legislation are being widely reported in the international press and almost universally condemned.  But it remains a popular piece of legislation in many quarters in Uganda, and Kampala is no place to be gay.

Homosexuality is already illegal there, and this is a country where the government routinely threatens lesbians and gays.  A Ugandan radio station was fined $1,000 and forced to issue a public apology after hosting homosexuals on a live talk show, and an LGBT rights activist - David Kato - was murdered shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed.

Thankfully there are real people on the ground in Uganda fighting for change, receiving international support as the world stands in solidarity with them.

So, was it a good week, or a bad week?

Congratulations San Francisco!  Well done, Olympia!  But let's not forget Jakarta.  And Kampala.